Renewing Your Covenant-Rosh Hashanah Day 2

Thank you for joining us for another morning of spiritual prayer. It is so great to see multiple generations of families together, both new members and those who have been here for decades, joining together as a spiritual community. I want to be sure that everyone knows that you always have a place here at the Jericho Jewish Center. Please be frequent visitors and please give me your input as to what you’d like to see at your Jericho Jewish Center.

What is Rosh Hashanah all about? Some may say doing teshuvah, or repentance for sins. Others believe it is welcoming in the new year, the anniversary of the creation of the world. Yet others feel it is being judged by God for one’s behavior; that on Rosh Hashanah our decree is written yet on Yom Kippur it is sealed. While all of these opinions are valid, I believe the central theme of Rosh Hashanah is remembering the covenant between God and the Jewish people, as well as the covenant between each of us as human beings. We do not lose sight of the fact that just as God had a special and unique relationship with our ancestors, so too does God have one with us.

The Selichot prayers (prayers for forgiveness) that we said this past week and continue to recite through Yom Kippur center on remembering the covenant between God and our patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Prayers such as “ki anu amecha”, “ki hinei kahomer” and the zichronot (remembrance) section of the amidah beseech God to remember His ever-present covenant with the Jewish people. Furthermore, yesterday’s Torah reading is a reminder of God remembering his promise to Sarah for her to have a child, demonstrating the beginning of God’s promise to Abraham to make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. It also shows that God cares about how God relates to us. As said in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s work Between God and Man “To Jewish religion…history is determined by the covenant: God is in need of man,”[1] that in addition to us trying to connect with God, God is attempting to connect to us.

The concept of covenant, of ברית, goes back to Noah and the flood.[2] God will never again destroy the world, no matter how bad humanity is. The sign of this covenant is the rainbow in the clouds. This is a universal covenant, as nothing humanity can do will violate it. True it does say beforehand that humanity is supposed to be fruitful and multiply and not kill one another, but these statements are independent of the covenant being fulfilled.

Ten generations later we have another ברית, a covenant given to Abraham. God promises Abraham numerous descendants and the land of Canaan, from Nile River to the Euphrates River.[3] This is the basis for our people’s claim to the land of Israel. This also appears to be unconditional, with nothing required from Abraham or his descendants to attain it. However, God adds a condition for us to partake in the covenant: each male must be circumcised at the age of eight days. If not, it is so serious that he will be cut off from his kin for breaking the covenant.[4]

Which type of covenant do you prefer: one that’s conditional or one which is unconditional? I imagine that most of us would lean towards the latter, as that means that you are guaranteed of receiving the reward without any pressure of living up to one’s responsibility. However, even though the word ברית is used, Noah’s is not a covenant in the truest sense. Covenant requires partnership between two sides; that both parties live up to their obligations. Otherwise, it is just a gift, and while gifts are nice they are more appreciated if we work for them.

Covenantal ceremonies remain a core pillar of our congregations-the main example being welcoming newborns into our community. The  ברית מילהor bris that a baby boy has is how we affirm our covenant with God through welcoming him into the Jewish people and giving him a Hebrew name. There are also a growing number of שמחת בת ceremonies for baby girls, to give our daughters a Hebrew name and welcome then into the Jewish people.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of emphasis on covenant, on what our personal relationship should be with God and with our people. Rabbis from all four major Jewish denominations (Eugene Borowitz in Reform Judaism, David Wolpe in Conservative, David Hartman of blessed memory in Orthodoxy and Sid Schwarz of Reconstructionist Judaism) have argued for a renewal of covenant. Wolpe went so far as to claim that Conservative Judaism should change its name to Covenantal Judaism![5]

How have the aforementioned rabbis reemphasized the notion of covenant? I will begin with our movement. Rabbi David Wolpe has argued that we need to increase our discussion of our personal connection to God and that we need to build a community which relates to others rather than being self-focused, a community of we rather than a community of me. For Wolpe, our focus needs to be on how we can work with others to bring godliness into the world.

David Hartman z”l also believed in a renewed emphasis on covenant. In the introduction to his book A Living Covenant, he states “The Sinai covenant was not perceived as one moment in history.  The tradition calls upon the community to renew the covenant in each generation.  As the rabbis teach, one must live by the Torah as if it had been given in one’s own time.  Covenantal renewal imparts contemporaneousness and immediacy to the experience of studying and living by the Torah.”[6] In other words, our covenant reaffirms our commitment to God and to our religion in every generation.

In his book Exploring Jewish Ethics: Papers on Covenantal Responsibility, Eugene Borowitz centers on the tension between traditionalists and modernists- in other words, the struggle between reaffirming Israel’s covenant with God versus affirming the autonomy of the Jewish person within Israel’s covenant.[7]  While in Reform Judaism each person has the opportunity to apply Jewish law to his/her life as s/he sees fit, Borowitz argues that we have an obligation to preserve our commitments to God and to our community. In an age where we tend to be focused on individual accomplishments, he strives for us to make a place for communal obligations as well.

In his recent book Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future, Sid Schwarz distinguishes between tribal Jews and covenantal Jews.[8] He differentiates between tribal Jews, who see their identity as one of group solidarity, and covenantal Jews, who see it as a spiritual legacy, as our birthright. Covenantal Jews, Schwarz argues, are attracted to Judaism because of the ethics and values that Judaism has brought into the world, including justice, compassion, human dignity and the protection of those who are most vulnerable. Their priority extends beyond Judaism to our responsibility towards the entire world. In his book, Schwarz offers suggestions as to how Jewish institutions can embrace covenantal Jews, as well as maintaining their connection to tribal Jews.

What are other ways to embrace our covenant with God and with our people? First, to realize that our relationship to God and personal religious growth is based on a growing appreciation of the world that God created. We sometimes struggle with formal prayer or with aspects of Jewish law, and while these are paramount, they are not the only ways through which we can reach God. We can also reach God through our work in social justice and interpersonal relationships. I often find God’s presence when I am hiking in the woods or when I look out my window and see a beautiful sunset. During prayer services I often take time in the Amidah to connect with God “off the page,” to either express elation over something great in the world or to express anger or frustration over something that is occurring.

We can also fulfill our end of the covenant by learning through Torah study how we can partner with God to improve the world. As Rabbi Dr. Louis Finkelstein z”l the former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary said, “When I pray, I talk to God. When I study, God talks to me.”[9] By examining the laws of giving Tzedakah (to those less fortunate), of loving the stranger and of providing for the community, we can see that Judaism is heavily based in the service of others. Judaism is a religion where specific actions taken matter and that through participation in these actions, we will strengthen our religious commitment and our connection to God. In addition, we will fulfill the words of Isaiah 46:8 of being “a light onto the nations.”

We can reflect on our covenant with God through appreciating the vast diversity of religions in the world as demonstrating multiple ways through which connect to God. My maternal grandmother loves to say that “all religions are different paths to the same goal.” We are blessed to have so many types of people in the world and in this room, and we must respect their traditions and the ways in which they connect to God. At the same time, we need appreciation for our own religion and for our own, personal connection to God, an understanding that we each have our own spiritual path and unique mission in life.

Just as we appreciate other religions, so too must we honor diverse perspectives as being from those who are made in the image of God, even when they go against the essence of our personal beliefs. Too often we give credence to the sad maxim “everyone is entitled to MY opinion.” In some cases the stakes are high, such as with Iran, but are they really so high as to demean or belittle others for their opinions? Does disagreement with another’s endorsement of the Iran deal warrant comparing him to a Kapo, a Jew who worked for the Nazis? There is an art form to disagreeing strongly with someone but demonstrating that our unity is more important, that sharing in the same Abrahamic covenant is what is central. It is our challenge to construct a helpful dialogue that does not require us to omit our core identities and beliefs, to constructively and impassionedly argue the issues without engaging in ad hominem attacks or giving up when our view is not followed, when we “lose” the debate.

 

Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, teaches that the ideal argument is one that is לשם שמיים, for the sake of heaven, citing the example of the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai.[10] The Talmud[11] asks what makes this an argument for the sake of heaven? It answers that although these two schools of thought vehemently disagreed with one another, their sons married their daughters. They recognized that even though their thought was diametrically opposed to one another, that respect for and love of one’s fellow human being was far more important. In contrast our sages give us the example of Korach and Moses as an argument that was not for the sake of heaven, where Korach sought to supersede Moses and take his position. We can learn much from this today: whether progressive or conservative, Democrat or Republican, egalitarian or not, one MUST affirm the right of the other to hold his/her opinion as well as a shared belief that we are all made in the image of God, and that our love of our fellow human beings trumps all.

What will you do TODAY, היום, to connect with our tradition and with God באשר הוא שם, wherever you are at in this particular moment? What will you do to renew your covenant with God and with our people? Are you going to increase your study of Torah, strengthen your prayer life, increase your observance of the commandments, enhance your ability to dialogue with those with whom you disagree?  What changes will you make day by day so that one year from today, on Rosh Hashanah 5777 you will be able to say “I have done my part in renewing the covenant, in reconnecting to my people, to my community and to God”?

 

[1]Fritz A. Rothschild, Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism from the Writings of Abraham J. Herschel (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1959), 51.

[2] Genesis 9:9-11

[3] Genesis 15:18

[4] Genesis 17:11-14

[5] Speech at Jewish Theological Seminary, November 10, 2005.

[6] David Hartman, a Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997), 9.

[7] Eugene B. Borowitz, Exploring Jewish Ethics: Papers on Covenantal Responsibility (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1990), 380.

[8] Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013), 10.

[9] Attributed to Rabbi Dr. Louis Finkelstein by his students through personal conversations they shared with him.

[10] Mishnah Avot (known as Pirkei Avot) 5:19

[11] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Yevamot 14b

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