The Miraculous Nature Of Covenant

God's covenant with Noah showed him and us the possibility of transforming the human condition of loneliness into the miracle of connection.

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The Ultimate Commitment

Perhaps the answer is to be found in the nature of a covenant. Covenant is of course a very big word for the Jewish people. Often, we are described as a covenantal people, defined by our intimate, ongoing relationship with God, and the signs of his covenant with us; the Torah, Shabbat, the Land of Israel, the Mitzvot. This being the case, it would seem to be worth our while to think a moment here about what a covenant is; what does it mean for two beings to enter into a binding, reciprocal, long-term (if not eternal) relationship, and what is so special about it?

The very idea of a covenant, a deep, lasting connection and partnership, an ultimate commitment between two individuals, can itself be seen as an abrogation of the way of the world, and is therefore itself a kind of miracle. In nature, each individual is ultimately alone, faced with the need to guarantee his own physical and emotional survival and integrity, trapped in his own way of seeing and experiencing the world. We are all, ultimately, on our own. Only fleetingly, and often problematically, nervously, is one connected to others, and then often only out of necessity, or self-interest. This is true when the partners to the relationship are both people, and their covenant is 'only' an abrogation of the natural selfishness and self-interest that human beings are heir to. It is all the more true when only one of the two partners is human, and the other is divine.

The image we have of Noah is that of a lonely, solitary man. In the 120 years given him by God to turn the hearts of his friends and neighbors, he failed to make one real connection, to have one real friend, whom he could convince to see things as he did. Imagine, not one human being on the entire planet who shared his world view, his way of understanding things! Noah, during this 120 year period, and, later, in the ark, while, outside, his entire world was being destroyed, and finally, after the deluge, when he leaves the ark to find every single person he had known now gone, vanished, is a model of man alone, separate, unconnected to others. (I am purposely discounting his family here; they are consistently presented as simply appendages to Noah, not individuals with whom he is truly in relationship or dialogue. In fact, after the flood, his relationship with his children seems very problematic, viz. the story of his drunkenness and the behavior of his son Ham.)

Protection From Lonliness

The covenant, the real miracle that God was offering Noah, was simply this: If a flood is coming, there are practical, simple steps to be taken, and you must take them. But, there are also other, deeper, trickier issues to be faced, and for those, we must make a covenant together. Because your biggest problem is that you are alone, and you do not have to be. Sure, you can build an ark and load it with supplies, but there is something inherently wrong, barren, rotten, with such a solitary existence. I also will need to protect you, Noah, from your angry neighbors, which clearly indicates how truly alone you are, and how dysfunctional that is. The purpose of our covenant is to defeat this aloneness, and give you the miracle of relationship. Now, if we can accomplish that miracle, the miracle of dialogue, of brit, which is, ultimately, the biggest miracle of all, as you have so tragically learned over the last 120 years, then there will be nothing rotten about your being holed up alone, just you and your immediate family, with your provisions, inside the ark, with all the world outside. And the wet, angry mob outside, banging on the door of the ark as the flood waters rise, will not be such a problem, for I will be there, inside, with you.

By offering Noah a covenant, a relationship, after 120 years of loneliness and frustration, God was showing him the most basic and crucial miracle of all, the miracle which transforms the natural human condition of being alone into one of connection, of relationship. This is the true meaning of covenant, and this is our role as a covenantal people; to connect, only connect.

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.