The Covenant of Total Being

Does Jewish suffering threaten commitment to God's covenant?


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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.

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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).

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