The Covenant of Total Being

Does Jewish suffering threaten commitment to God's covenant?

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted with permission of the author from The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays.

When Moses completed the covenant ceremony and read the book of the covenant before the Israelites, they responded, "We will do and we will listen" (Exodus 24:7). The expression has always been a source of wonderment and surprise to rabbis and a refutation of the anti-Semitic portrayal of Jews as calculating and self-protective. "We will do and we will listen" implies a commitment to observe the covenant even before the Jews heard its details!

The Talmud tells this story about a Sadducee who once saw Rava so engrossed in learning that he did not attend a wound in his own hand! The Sadducee exclaimed, "You rash people! You put your mouths ahead of your ears [by saying "we will do and we will listen"]! and you still persist in your recklessness. First, you should have heard out [the covenant details]. If it is within your powers, then accept it. If not, you should have rejected it!" Rava answered, "We walked with our whole being. [Rashi's classic Talmudic commentary: "We walked…as those who serve (God) in love. We relied on God not to burden us with something we could not carry. "] Of us it is written, 'The wholeness (meaning wholeheartedness) of the righteous shall guide them.'" [Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat, 88a.]

An Unlimited Commitment

This story captures one other crucial dimension of the covenant commitment--it is open-ended. Like love, it has proven to be a limitless commitment. Why is this so? As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik has explained, the Torah is a covenant of being, not of doing. [Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, pp. 23-45.] The goal is the completion of being, the full realization of humanness. It is not a utilitarian contract designed for useful ends so that if the advantage is lost, the agreement is dropped. The covenant is a commitment on the part of each partner to be the only one, to be unique to the other. It is a turning of the whole person to the other. The two are bound together in a wholeness that transcends all the particulars of interest and advantage.

When the initial agreement was made, neither side knew its limits. When Israel accepted a mission to the world, it sounded agreeable. But what if the Jews had known then what they know now about the cost of this election? As Elie Wiesel once said, "If God wanted to send us on a mission to redeem the world, that was all right, but God failed to tell us that it was a suicide mission."

Love and Forgiveness

Initially, the Jews accepted the covenant out of love and gratitude for redemption. It gave them the strength to commit themselves to what turned out to be an open-ended covenant--very much like a commitment to marriage or to having a child--a commitment in which there was no way of knowing the ultimate cost. As the risk and suffering of Jewish history unfolded, however, the commitment was tested repeatedly. The tests were so extraordinary that they challenged the basic structure of the agreement.

In the destruction of the First Temple, the prophets suggested that Israel had not lived up to the covenant. Did the destruction mean that God was angry, so angry as to repudiate the covenant itself? Was it all over? The answer is explored again and again in prophetic literature. God was angry. God would punish. But finally God came to realize that if one loves, one must forgive everything. The ultimate expression of this view is found in Hosea's prophecy. God told Hosea to marry a woman, Gomer. He loved her and she bore his children. Then she whored and betrayed and failed him. In anger and jealousy, he sent her away. But Hosea loved her so that he called her back. Poignantly, he even offered to pay her a harlot's hire to stay with him.

The people of Israel, like Gomer, broke God's heart, as it were, but after the rage, the hurt, the jealousy, the wrestling with rejection comes God's anguished affirmation, "How shall I give up, Ephraim? How can I surrender you, Israel?" (Hosea 11:8). The crisis of the destruction passed. God was committed permanently. In the future, it was axiomatic that the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) would go into exile with Israel but would never abandon the people or leave the covenant.

In the crisis of the destruction of the Second Temple, Israel again experienced the silence of God. The God who intervened in the Exodus to save Israel at the Red Sea was now the God who self-limited and allowed human freedom even when it meant that the wicked triumphed. The enemy trampled the Temple and all but destroyed the Jewish people. Prophecy ceased, and the Jewish people had to askthemselves whether God's silence and the Jews' suffering meant that the covenant was finished.

Again, they came to recognize that it was not. As Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote, "In the bleak autumnal night of dreadful silence unillumined by the vision of God or made homely [heimish] by His voice, they refused to acquiesce in this cruel historical reality and would not let the ancient dialogue between God and man come to an end. … If God has stopped calling man, they urged, let man call God."

But is there some limit that could break the covenant? The sum of woe inflicted on the Jews as a result of their covenantal witness is truly staggering. Is the suffering worthwhile? This question forces itself into consciousness whenever the holiday of the covenant and the reenactment of Sinai approach.

The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays copyright 1988 by Rabbi Irving Greenberg.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).