The Covenant of Total Being

Does Jewish suffering threaten commitment to God's covenant?

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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.

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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).