Renewing and Reimagining the Covenant
This Dvar Torah was written by Orot Center for New Jewish Learning co-founder Rebecca Minkus-Lieberman.
When we decided that my eldest son had reached that fateful age - the age when it seemed appropriate that he have a cell phone - we waded in with hesitation and deep reservation. It was uncharted territory for us as parents, and we were filled with anxiety.
Were we making the right decision? What was waiting for us - and him - in opening this Pandora’s box? How could we enable his independence while protecting him from what may be harmful, toxic, dangerous? How do we move through unknown waters?
So we made a phone covenant.
My husband and I sat together and tried to anticipate every area of concern, every possible pothole, and we composed an agreement that had both parties - parents and son - promise to do their best to uphold the covenantal specifications.
It has not been fool-proof, and it has gone through several rounds of amendation, but it has helped provide clarity and comfort as we have moved into this new stage of our relationship.
I am thinking a great deal about covenants these days. And so is Parshat Mishpatim.
What comprises a covenant – a berit? When do we need them?
And when do we need to renew, reimagine the berit that has been in place?
Mishpatim presents us with one of the most striking transitions in the Torah.
In the previous parsha, Yitro, we moved through the climactic and other-worldly narrative of the giving of the Torah on Sinai, with the thunder, quaking, and smoke. The revelation and enactment of the covenant between the Divine and the People of Israel.
And then you reach Mishpatim: a prosaic litany of civil legislation, everyday situations that arise between a person and a neighbor, a family member, a coworker, a friend’s animal or property.
This juxtaposition tells us: you may have thought that the dramatic revelation at Sinai was the covenant, but the real covenant is right here, down in the muddy waters of everyday human relations.
While witnessing the high drama of Sinai, it would have been easy to be overcome with ecstatic emotion, to dive into this enveloping relationship and be swept off one’s feet. But Mishpatim comes to say - hold on. That was the easy part.
Now comes the real work of being in a covenantal relationship. The messy human work. That covenant with the Divine has very real implications for our human interactions.
There are many situations in life that require covenants of sorts: accepting a job, enrolling in a school or program, establishing a trademark on your intellectual property.
So many interactions between two people now come with agreements, MOU’s, contracts. Why do we need these? Why do we sign them?
Ostensibly, we do so to protect our interests, to ensure that we control the situation as much as possible and prevent potential mistakes, corruption, cheating. And to have some recourse if things go sour.
When we enter into unknown territory with a new partner, covenants help assuage our anxieties and fears.
Interestingly, the more well-known the partner, the more intimate the relationship between two individuals, the less often we use explicit covenants. In these most intimate relationships, we believe - and hope - that we do not need to spell out the parameters of a trusting relationship. They are understood. Unspoken yet mutually valued.
In Mishpatim, the People are unknown to one another as newly free members of this new nation. They are strangers, to themselves and each other. These freshly liberated individuals are awash in fear and anxiety.
Without shared trust, they must start building community and relationships with covenantal specifications to guide them, detailed instructions on how to behave in every possible human scenario.
Sometimes, when navigating new territory in the absence of human trust, covenantal agreements can help us step into the unknown with less trepidation, allowing us to work our way towards trust and love that does not need to be spoken.
But a covenantal agreement needs human tending to blossom into a living and loving relationship or community, as David Hartman reminds us in A Living Covenant:
“The Sinai moment of revelation, as mediated by the ongoing discussion in the tradition, invites one and all to acquire the competence to explore the terrain and extend the road. It does not require passive obedience and submission to the wisdom of the past...The tradition calls upon the community to renew the covenant in each generation.”
I am reminded of Rashi's words on Exodus 19:1, as the People are preparing to receive the Torah on Mt. Sinai:
THE SAME (lit., this) DAY — on the day of the New Moon. It ought not to write “on this day,” but “on that day”; what, then, is the force of the words “on this day”? Since they refer to the day when the Israelites came to Sinai to receive the Torah they imply that the commands of the Torah should be to you each day as something new (not antiquated and something of which you have become tired), as though He had only given them to you for the first time on the day in question...
What does being a part of a People centered around a berit mean to me? What elements of this berit are calling to me differently now? What might be my role in bringing new energy, new life, new commitment to its layers?
All of the many covenants that people our lives - the holy and the prosaic, the spoken and the unspoken, the Divine and the human - require our tender, continual care and creative reimagining. They are intricate and messy and the very stuff of which life and love are created.
In Mishpatim, the seeds of a beautiful covenantal ideal are planted, and we are the gardeners. What covenants in your life need nourishing? What can you do this year to make them stronger?