Children volunteering at Masbia, a kosher soup kitchen network and food pantry in New York City. (Courtesy of Masbia)

A Covenant of Action

Judaism emphasizes deed, not creed.

Commentary on Parashat Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1 - 29:8

Within the narrative of blessings and curses in Parashat Ki Tavo, God sets out expectations for how we should behave, making it clear that this is not a covenant of faith, but one of deeds. Contemporary Jewish philosopher David Hartman contends that the blessings and curses are not literally inflicted upon humans in response to their observance or nonobservance of commandments. Hartman argues, instead, that our Torah enumerates these curses and blessings in order to emphasize the grave importance of acting with holiness and thereby actualizing God’s presence in our midst. The blessings and curses are provided as a symbolic reminder of our covenantal obligations, reinforcing our commitment to a covenant rooted in action.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel also invokes our covenant with God when he asserts that the blessings and curses are meant to impart a sense of our partnership with the divine as we struggle to cope with good and evil. Simply observing the Torah’s written laws is not enough to continually bring sanctity into our lives. The Torah not only narrowly stipulates that certain acts are prohibited, but also broadly demands that we accept our responsibility to realize a sustainable and just society.

Heschel understands the significance of our deeds both as signs of our covenantal relationship and as active agents of change in our surroundings. In God in Search of Man, he writes:

It is in the deeds that human beings become aware of what life really is, of their power to harm and to hurt, to wreck and to ruin; of their ability to derive joy and bestow it upon others…The deed is the test, the trial, and the risk. What we perform may seem slight, but the aftermath is immense.

A Recipe for Sustainable Development

Understood this way, mitzvot ben adam l’chavero — those commandments that guide human relationships — really actualize our covenant with God. The majority of the mitzvot detailed in this Torah portion focus on supporting just and compassionate relationships with other human beings–in effect, offering guidelines for the creation of just communities.

Prohibitions against subverting the rights of the stranger, secretly harming a neighbor, and accepting bribes support the universal human rights we seek to uphold in our social justice work. The Torah champions human integrity and dignity, and our literary tradition further elevates this with the assertion that the highest form of tzedakah is to help someone become selfsufficient.

Expanding this oft-cited mitzvah from the individual scale to the community offers a recipe for sustainable development. The most empowering and long-lasting support we can provide for a community in need is to assist it to create the infrastructure to care for and protect itself. This kind of development also often has spillover effects by enabling an increasingly self-sufficient community to assist its neighbors through its newfound wisdom and resources.

Manifesting our covenant with God through action tips the scale away from curses and toward blessings. As Heschel maintained, “In a sacred deed we echo God’s suppressed chant…We intone God’s unfinished song. God depends upon us, awaits our deeds.” We have the opportunity to heal our world and make it a place of peace. The list of blessings and curses in the Torah reminds us that we must choose each and every day to be active partners with God working to repair the world.

We begin this work at the individual level, but must recognize that it needs to be applied also at the community level if we are to build a truly just society. We do not only hold the fate of our personal lives in our hands, we also hold the fate of humanity. Through acts of holiness, we engender God’s presence in our midst and become sacred instruments through which God’s justice, goodness, mercy, and love enter and transform the world.

Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.


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