Renewing Our Covenant — and Making New Ones

I think about the most recent Elections in Israel and wonder if the goals of Israel and the mission of this Jewish state are the same as they were 71+ years ago when David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s Independence. They say sequels are never as good as the original, but this sequel to the 2019 Israel Elections didn’t disappoint. And the truth is, the concerns during this election were different because the country is different. The world is different. 71+ years ago, world Jewry was different and needed something different.

I think about conservative Supreme Court Justices like the late Antonin Scalia, who consider themselves to be Constitutionalists, believing the exact words of the Constitution, the “letter of the law,” should be interpreted in the exact same manner today, as it was almost 250 years ago at the establishment of this unique experiment called America. But again, America is different now. The world is different now. Our mission may be the same, but our values have evolved.

In fact, the essence of the ideology of Conservative Judaism is the belief that Halakha, Jewish law, is in itself an evolving document – that Torah is a Tree of Life, an Etz Chayim, because it always is meaningful in our lives, but means something different in my life than it may have to those living in Eastern Europe three centuries ago.

Parashat Ki Tavo is one of the most disturbing aspects of Moses’ final speech to the Israelites. He is scared. He knows that he is about to leave this world. He is scared to die. And he is scared of what legacy he will leave behind. Will he be remembered or forgotten? Will the lessons that he taught still resonate, or will the Israelites forge a new path? And as a result, the text is filled with beautiful blessings, but those are understandably totally overshadowed by the disgusting and disturbing curses that threaten the Israelites.

But at the end of the parasha, there is a throwaway verse. At the end of all the curses, we are told:

These are the terms of the covenant which God commanded Moses to conclude with the Israelites, to give to the Israelites, in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant which God made with them on Mount Horeb, on Sinai. (Deut. 28:69).

We pass over this and yet, this verse might be one of the most important lessons of the Torah. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years before entering the Promised Land. They do so so that they can be a different people when they enter the land. There is an acknowledgement that the slave generation, those who lived a life of servitude in Egypt, needed to die out. A generation of free people, who never experienced slavery are what is to enter the Promised Land. Two generations after the Israelites received the Torah, they are to enter the Promised Land, and within those two generations they evolve into a different people, with different needs, with a different mindset, support system, and ideology. The people who left Egypt are not those who enter the land of Israel. And so, their covenant is different too.

That is our lesson as well. We hold unto these contracts like we are the same people. The Ketubah, the Marriage Contract, the oldest continuous legal document we have in Jewish tradition, doesn’t take into account that people change, and that relationships change. The relationship between newlyweds who are high school sweethearts  is different than that of two retirees who have raised their children and witnessed their own children become parents. That is why couples “renew” their vows, but also why couples need to create new vows.

We need new covenants. We evolve. The world evolves. Our relationships evolve.

At this time of year, as we approach these Yamim Noraim, we do not simply reflect on the past, on who we have been, but we focus on the future and who we want to be. We do not simply remind ourselves of the covenant that we neglected, of the commitments that we ignored, of the promises we’ve broken. Instead, each and every year, we write a new covenant, with God, with each other, and with ourselves.

Just as Moses reaffirms the covenant made at Sinai, he establishes this covenant in Moab. May we feel inspired and courageous enough to acknowledge that we must establish new covenants in the new year. We do not ignore the past. Rather, we use that as the cornerstones of the covenants that we write for the future. May we find meaning in all the covenants we make, and may we all be written in the book of life for a good year to come.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


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