Sneaking Into Our Busy Lives

May 1, 2013
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I recently attended the funeral of Jonylah Watkins, a 6-month-old girl gunned down in March by a gang member in Chicago. Throughout the funeral, I heard people shout out, “Thank Jesus,” “Praise the Lord,” and “Hallelujah.” The funeral was filled with an unconditional love of God, and for such a tragic event, it was uplifting and moving. All attending felt that God loved them and cared for them, even if God had allowed a 6-month-old, innocent girl to be killed while cradled in her father’s arms.

An enduring, unbreakable relationship between God and the Jewish people is also found in our biblical and rabbinic traditions. Our covenant, though, at least on the surface, is merely a simple contract: If we do good and follow what God asks us to do, God will do good for us; and if we do not do what God asks of us, then God can totally abandon us to the forces of evil in the world. Evaluating our covenantal relationship with God historically, on the basis of how often it has protected us versus how often it has not, is disheartening — certainly for anyone seeking a healthy, unconditionally loving relationship with God.

The enduring significance of the covenant, then, needs to surpass the contractual relationship. In that wager, God is just using reward and punishment as an excuse, a hook, to get us to pay attention. But in a covenantal relationship, God is interested in being fully part of our lives: our suffering, our struggles, our happy moments, and our passions. This is the meaning of covenant to me: God’s way of sneaking into the busy lives of human beings through messages of fire and brimstone, land and exile, abundance and famine, in order to connect and partner with us in this world.

Over the past few years, my wife and I have spent many months on the oncology floor of the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago with our daughter who, thank God, has recovered from cancer and chemotherapy. We have observed many other children in similar predicaments. We have observed a great deal of anguish and pain. Anyone with a heart and a fiber of belief struggles with the contractual understanding of covenant when faced with so many innocent, precious children who are suffering along with their families.

Yet covenant is apparent when God’s presence permeates the hospital. God’s presence is felt in the room where a sweet, tender child is crying at having shots, or vomiting; covenant means that God is right there, no conditions or terms.

God wants to be with us in our suffering and our joy, when we are pious and when we are not. That is the meaning of covenant — a relationship that endures no matter what.

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Asher Lopatin has been the rabbi at the Orthodox Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago for the past 18 years. He will become president of the Modern and Open Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in July. As a Rhodes Scholar, he worked on a doctorate on Islamic fundamentalism at Oxford University.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting, so the presence of G-d can manifest to a youth, then. There were instances in Torah that chronicles these encounters, yes? Like Samuel. Samson. Moses. I was 12 when I felt a tangible nudging, so to speak. Such life-threatening challenges to young people would seem so unfair (reminiscent of the binding of Isaac, how old was he when that happened), but that presence is much more evident when children are the central vessel of transmission. I’ve said that a lot to myself since i was a teenager: “It’s not fair. Your fashioning hurts. Why?” But, I suppose, it is (honest because it can feel like prodding), in the context of a “covenant relationship”

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