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.

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.

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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).