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Restructuring the Covenant (Erev Yom Kippur Sermon)

09/21/2018 08:02:28 PM


Hannah Orden

This year the Reconstructionist Movement changed its name to Reconstructing Judaism. Not everyone is happy about the change, but I like the new name. Rather than a descriptive adjective, the new name puts the emphasis on action. In my opinion, the entire history of Judaism is a long process of constantly reconstructing Judaism that begins with the Torah itself. In Deuteronomy, Moses retells the story of the Israelites' experience in the wilderness, but it's not quite the same as what happened. Moses even changes the Ten Commandments, which you would think would be sacred and immutable. Perhaps you could write this off as a case of faulty memory – Moses is 120 years old after all – but clearly it is more than that. Deuteronomy introduces ideas of justice and equality, individual responsibility, love and loyalty, that were missing from the earlier books of the Torah. In doing this, the editors of the Torah gave all future generations of Jews permission to reinterpret and reconstruct our understanding of the texts, the mitzvot, and even our relationship to God and each other.  My premise is that while some of us call ourselves Reconstructionist Jews with a capital R, our people have been reconstructing Judaism for thousands of years.

In a classic case of reconstructing Judaism, our High Holiday prayer book includes an alternative Torah reading for Yom Kippur. The traditional reading is about instructions for the High Priest to make atonement for the Israelites by sacrificing animals and sending their sins into the wilderness on a goat. Any of you who attended services last year when Nate Laposky became a bar mitzvah will remember the Geico commercial Nate showed about the scapegoat. It was a great example of how the biblical idea of a scapegoat has entered popular American culture. But seriously, do any of us believe that we can get rid of our sins by sending them off on a goat?

Practices that made sense several thousand years ago are no longer meaningful to us in modern times. So, instead of reading about the scapegoat, our community reads the passage from Deuteronomy that begins atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai eloheichem – "You stand here today, all of you… prepared to enter into covenant with your God.”  The passage continues, “Not with you alone do I make this covenant, but in addition to whoever stands with us today, all those who are not here this day." (Deuteronomy 29:9-14) Well, this is definitely better than scapegoats! Many of us are moved by the idea that we were all present at Sinai – all of the Jews of past generations, all of us alive today, and all future generations. That's a powerful idea. But what does it actually mean to enter into a covenant with God? If this Torah reading is going to be meaningful, I believe we are going to have to reconstruct the whole idea of covenant.

In the Torah, it is clear.  A covenanat is a legal contract, an agreement that is binding on both sides.   If you keep God's laws and commandments, God will protect you and things will go well for you. If you don't, you will suffer horribly and be destroyed. I doubt that many of us believe in a God who rewards us for obedience and punishes us when we go astray. I suspect that most of us don’t even think about our lives or our relationship to Judaism in terms of covenant. Yet, covenant or brit in Hebrew is absolutely central to the entire enterprise we call Judaism. The word brit appears over 200 times in the Hebrew Bible. Without a commitment to covenant, it is unlikely that Judaism would have survived two thousand years of exile and persecution.

So, what do we make of this covenant? How can we reconstruct it for our time? At a Shabbat morning service this summer we read another verse from Deuteronomy that is similar to the Torah reading for Yom Kippur. "It is not with your fathers that God made this covenant but with every one of us who is here today." (Deuteronomy 5:3) This is Moses speaking to the generation born after the Exodus. They actually were not there when God made the covenant with the Israelites at Sinai, but Moses lets them know that the covenant binds them too, and by extension, it binds all of us. At the service, when I asked people to share how we might understand the concept of covenant today, several people mentioned the idea of l'dor va dor – from generation to generation. One congregant said that her eldest daughter had thanked her and her husband for instilling a connection to Judaism, and this felt like being faithful to the covenant.

L’dor va dor, passing on a connection to Judaism from generation to generation is deeply connected to the Jewish emphasis on teaching and learning. At every service, after the shema, we recite v'ahavta which tell sus: “These words which I command you today shall be upon your heart… and you shall teach them diligently to your children.”

Rabbi Arthur Green comments on this theme of teaching our children in the Reconstructionist weekday prayer book. Rabbi Green finds a parallel between parents teaching children and God teaching us. He says: "God gives us the greatest gift imaginable: teachings that will help us to live. What more could we want from a loving parent than sharing the gift of knowledge?  We pray that we may have the open and understanding heart to receive those teachings, to make them real by our deeds, and pass them on to others. This is our response to God's love: a commitment to study, to live a life of Torah, and to carry it forward to future generations."

 This commitment to study and learning and ongoing interpretation runs deep in our tradition. In the preface to a fascinating book called The People and the Books, author Adam Kirsch writes: “For most of Jewish history, books were not just one element in Jewish culture, they were the core of that culture, the binding force that sustained a civilization.”   When I interact with clergy from other faith traditions, I am often aware that what distinguishes Judaism is the heart of our tradition is study, learning, and transmission of knowledge. Rabbis have always been teachers, not preachers. As a rabbi, I take very seriously the obligation to share and pass on the wisdom of our teachings. We are truly a people of many books, and I believe that part of what covenant means is to live our lives in ways that are guided by the wisdom of our ancient and modern texts.

I’ll give you an example: Last fall our CBH Talmud Study group spent weeks reading and discussing what the ancient rabbis had to say about shame. One of the most striking statements is that "one who shames another person in public, it is as though he were shedding blood." (Bava Metziah 58b). A few days after discussing this passage, a member of the group sent us an email about an experience he had.

He wrote: “I was just at the supermarket the other day, and I couldn't find cheddar goldfish in the snack aisle. I went to the front and asked one of the checkout people where I could find "goldfish." She answered, "Try the seafood counter." In a half-second, I realized that she was not joking. In the next half-second, I suppressed the laugh about to come out of my mouth, recalling that: "Anyone who shames another in public, it is as though he were spilling blood."

I love this story because it illustrates so clearly what covenant might mean today if, as Rabbi Green suggests, we accept the gift of teaching that we have inherited, search for the wisdom that can still guide our behavior, and pass it on to future generations.

This is one aspect of covenant that I think is still important, but I want to keep exploring what else covenant might mean to us. Another person at the Shabbat morning service pointed out that in a subsequent Torah verse, Moses reminds the people that when God spoke to them, they were frightened and asked Moses to stand between them and God. This congregant suggested that the idea that we all were at Sinai, that we all entered into the covenant, is about a commitment to overcoming our fear so that we do not need Moses or anyone else to stand between us and God. I like this idea because relationship is clearly an important aspect of covenant. In fact, the Torah spells out for us that the relationship between God and human beings is based on love. But love, as we all know, is not so easy. First, we need to overcome our fear and take the risk of being vulnerable. We need to learn how to love.  We keep messing up, betraying, misunderstanding, forgetting the commitment to be in relationship.

This past year I have been re-discovering the philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm. In "The Art of Loving." Fromm writes: If two people who have been strangers… suddenly let the wall between them break down, and feel close, this moment of oneness is one of the most exhilarating experiences in life." Yet, Fromm continues, "There is hardly any enterprise which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, which fails so regularly, as love."

This is where covenant comes in. Covenant is the commitment to hang in there with a relationship, despite the disappointments, despite all of the mistakes we will make. It is an unshakable decision to keep trying, to keep loving. This is difficult enough with people, but what on earth does it mean to love God and be in relationship with God, especially if you do not conceive of God as a being? Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman writes that although Jewish tradition warns us against picturing God, most of us "cannot avoid imagining God as something: a person; a friendly, protective presence; a force for good. Whatever picture we prefer," he says, "God is the name we give to that which is trustworthy, loving, and good.” Loving God, in Rabbi Hoffman’s view, is “first and foremost a spiritual perspective; it is the Jewish term for anchoring ourselves in the eternal, trustworthy, and good."

This is a beautiful sentiment. But I still feel the need to reconstruct it. What does it mean “to anchor ourselves in the eternal, trustworthy, and good?”  How do we go about that? Perhaps a clue might be found in the practice of laying tefillin. The same Torah passage that tells us to teach our children, also commands us to bind God's words on our hands. The words Jews recite when wrapping the leather straps around their fingers, are all about relationship: “I betroth you to me forever; I betroth you to me in righteousness and justice, love and compassion." The words, from the prophet Hosea, combined with the physical act of binding ourselves to God, are a powerful symbol of the covenant. And Jews traditionally do this every day, because relationships are like that. They require a renewed commitment over and over. And each day, after we declare our commitment to a covenantal relationship, and bind God’s words on our arms, the very next thing in the liturgy, the next words out of our mouths are: v'ahavta l'reiacha kamokha – You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

The message seems clear – making a commitment each day to love God is expressed in loving other human beings. And not only our family and dearest friends. The Torah commands us to love our neighbor and to love the stranger. This always seems like a high bar. How can we be commanded to love people we don't know? Why not say “be kind to your neighbor” and "welcome the stranger" and leave it at that?

In Path of the Prophets, the book we will be studying in Shabbat Learning this year, Rabbi Schwartz writes: "The Torah commands love of God, love of neighbor, and love of stranger. If we understand this love as sentiment, it is difficult to understand how such a feeling could be commanded… However, if we understand the commanded love of the Torah as loyalty and fidelity to the covenant and its commandments, things make more sense. The proof of love is in how we treat others."

This connection between covenant and love is manifested in the biblical Book of Ruth. Ruth is a Moabite woman who is considered to be the first convert to Judaism. She is the daughter-in-law of Naomi, an Israelite whose family migrates to Moab because there is a famine in the land of Israel. When Naomi's husband and two sons die, she is alone, unprotected and vulnerable. She decides to return to her home and she urges her daughters-in-law to leave her and return to their own families. But Ruth refuses to leave Naomi, famously saying: "Wherever you go, I shall go; your people shall be my people; and your God shall be my God."

Ruth is not an Israelite, but she takes upon herself the covenant and expresses it by her actions. As the story progresses, though she is a vulnerable stranger and widow herself, she takes risks for the sake of her mother-in-law Naomi. Ruth embodies the quality of chesed or lovingkindness, and by her actions, she arouses chesed in others and inspires the community to live up to the ideals of the Torah to care for the poor, the widow, and the stranger.

One of my teachers at rabbinical school, Judith Kates, points out that God never acts in the story of Ruth. All of the goodness, compassion, fairness, and caring is brought about by the actions of human beings. She writes that the covenantal relationship between God and people implies a sense of human "adequacy." From the very start, when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, Jewish tradition insists on human free will. Kates observes: "Throughout Judaism, we encounter this crucial notion of the necessity for human cooperation and action in fulfilling divine purposes."

This idea was expressed in the most beautiful way by Nancy Mahl who completed her conversion to Judaism this summer. In describing her path to entering the covenant, Nancy wrote: "It seems to me that in Judaism God is to be found at the end of our sleeves, and that is okay with me." Nancy understood that the Jewish covenant requires us to act.

The idea of brit, of covenant, has sustained our people throughout history. I suggest that we do not toss it away too lightly, but rather that we mine it for the meaning with which it can infuse our lives and the guidance it can provide in establishing our priorities. How can we reconstruct the covenant?  How can we experience ourselves as being in covenant with the spirit of goodness and justice and life? I believe it begins with study and learning and valuing the riches of Jewish knowledge and tradition. The opportunities for Jewish learning are vast. Here at our small congregation alone, we offer Torah Study, Talmud Study, Midweek Learning, Shabbat Learning, and guest speakers. The Reconstructionist Movement also offers a variety of online classes, and this year we have the marvelous opportunity of attending the Reconstructionist convention in November.  I urge you to take advantage of at least one of these opportunities for study. We are inheritors of a magnificent tradition, far, far more valuable than any money or possessions or property we may inherit. Yet, too many of us have walked away from what Rabbi Green describes as the “greatest gift imaginable: teachings that will help us to live.”

As we reconstruct the covenant, let us not forget that a covenant is a relationship.  Consider that being in covenant with the spirit of goodness and justice and life also means making a commitment over and over, every single day, to be a source of good, to do all we can to bring more love into the world, to use the hands at the end of our sleeves to act in the world with chesed – loving kindness, compassion, and justice.

Tomorrow morning, we will read the ancient words: atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai eloheichem – "You stand here today, all of you… prepared to enter into covenant with your God.”  I hope when you hear these words, you will remember that the Torah is speaking to each of us.

Tue, August 11 2020 21 Av 5780