This is the sermon I gave at my brother Joe and his then fiance Rachael’s Aufruf in August, 2015.
The Jewish religion is a binding force that focuses on how we relate to each other and to our world. Judaism is focused on creating community and uniting people, like how my brother Joe and his future bride Rachael along with (the other couple whose aufruf it also was) will soon be married, or like how we all came together to celebrate their aufruf today. In the biblical worldview, a preferred approach to relationship is called the covenant, the brit. This week’s parsha, Eikev, is about the nature and conditions of the covenant.
To be in covenant is to be in relationship. It is not a mystical union where one or both parties abandon any sense of self. Rather, a covenant is a partnership dependent on its members bringing their full selves to a perpetual encounter with the other. God and Moses and Israel are not one, they are in relationship. It is a relationship of active caring, not of indifference. It is a relationship characterized by pathos, feelings. God is both sympathetic and empathetic toward Israel. God wept for the slaves in Egypt, and God wept with the exiles from Jerusalem.
It is hard to describe a covenant as a tangible thing like a physical contract, it is more of an approach to life. In this week’s parsha, we learn that the key to the covenant is a deep love that breeds active service.
The love found in a covenantal approach does not objectify the other, subsuming their needs and feelings to your will. Rather, this love subsumes your will to the needs and feelings of your partner, and pushes you to actively serve those needs. In the words of the 19th century eastern European Mussar Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, “The material needs of my neighbor are my spiritual needs.” No matter how frustrated God was with our ancestors in the desert, with the adultery and idolatry of the golden calf, the constant complaining and the lack of gratitude, God still served because God had a deep love for Abraham and Sarah’s descendants combined with an unshakeable faith that the people of Israel would one day become a holy nation of priests and prophets.
While living in Israel this past year as a rabbinical student, I had the privilege to learn about a human who exemplified the covenantal attitude of love and service, Rabbi Menachem Froman. Reb Froman is largely unknown in America, but in Israel he is known as a Rabbi committed to peace. He met with everyone, including weekly meetings with the head of hamas. He is unique amongst peace activists because he was one of the early leaders of the settlement movement. This movement began after the Six Day War in 1967, when Israel, buoyed by its newfound control of the West Bank, allowed Jews to once again settle the hills of Judea and Samaria where Abraham and King David lived. Reb Froman’s wife, Hadassah, told me the story of when she and her husband first arrived at their brand new apartment in the settlement village of Tekoa. On the front door of the apartment was a sticker that read, ‘The land of Israel for the people of Israel.’ Reb Froman fell to the ground and wept, he shrieked, ‘They got it backwards! It’s the people of Israel for the land of Israel!’ This arrogant approach to the land violated the covenant, and this shocked and frightened Reb Froman about the future of the West Bank.
Reb Froman died two years ago after a joyful life committed to love and service to both Jews and Palestinians in the whole land of Israel. He had many students, and one of them taught me about the importance of listening as a skill to develop the type of love necessary for the covenant.
Listening is a theme in Jewish tradition. The Shema, our central creed, simply means, listen! We listen because words and sounds have the power to create worlds. While other creation myths contain tangible events like fires, floods, and turtle backs, our world begins with words. Barukh she’amar v’haya ha’olam, blessed is God who spoke and there was the world. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Words create worlds.” In this week’s parsha, we find the second paragraph of the shema. It details the good life that happens if the covenant is followed, rain, crops, and life, and it details the evil that comes with disobeying the covenant, drought, famine, and death. These terms and conditions of the covenant begin with the phrase, ‘If you listen,’ to emphasize the role of listening as an approach to covenantal life. One of Reb Froman’s students, Shaul Judelman, told me a story about how he learned the importance of listening as a step toward understanding covenantal love and service.
Shaul is an American Jew from Seattle who moved to the West Bank in 1999. He went directly to Reb Froman’s school in Tekoa to study the kabbalah, very much unaware of Reb Froman’s peace work. One day during the second intifada in the early 2000’s, when suicide bombers were blowing up cafes in Jerusalem and Israeli fighter jets were bombing Ramallah, Reb Froman asked Shaul to go into a Palestinian refugee camp to pick up three Palestinians who Reb Froman wanted to meet with. Shaul nervously drove his beat up blue pickup truck with his yellow Israeli license plates into enemy territory in a warzone, and found three men waiting for him at a street corner. Two jumped into the front seat next to him, and the other Palestinian, holding an oud, a Middle Eastern stringed instrument that King David used to play, jumped into the bed of the truck. The ride was totally silent, Shaul spoke no Arabic and these men spoke no English or Hebrew. Near the end of the drive, Shaul came to a complete stop at a stop sign and he heard a soft noise coming from the back of the truck. It was the sound of an oud playing ha-tikvah, the Israeli national anthem, the Jewish song of yearning to be free in the land of Israel. Shaul was so moved that he couldn’t move. He just sat, and listened, and wept. This Palestinian man strummed out love and acceptance to Shaul across the abyss of war and suffering and pulled him into a loving covenant. Shaul has since sympathetically strummed back love and service for all his neighbors. He is living in the covenant, and frankly, I’ve never met a more joyful person.
The covenant is a joyful obligation. It provides us with direction within a mysterious world. It encourages us to flower and be fruitful. It places us on a historical arc toward peace, justice, and mercy. In the words of God through Moses, “If you will keep my covenant… you will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The covenant is a launch pad toward the greatest potential of humanity. Toward the emerging creation of a better us.
The covenant roots us in a tradition of belonging and comfort, and also encourages us to transcend our individual concerns and participate in tending a grander garden of meaning and joy. The covenant is the foundation that imbues our temporal actions with an eternal significance, attaches cosmic meaning to the mysteries and existential absurdities of day to day life, and grounds us on our pale blue dot. When we accept our role in the covenant, we participate in relationship with the powerful play of life, and we are privileged for the chance to humbly compose a verse.
Marriage is a covenant between two loving people. It has the power to root its participants in loving soil, to provide an expression for soulful service, and to grant a meaningful knowledge of a significant life. Its fulfillment yields ripe fruits.
I hope that through our covenantal relationships, and through your marriages, we can create belonging and meaning through love and service, and move ourselves and all of Israel and all of humanity another step forward along the path toward fulfilling our obligation to be a holy nation.