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In All Fa​cets, Torah's About Covenant

September 25, 2008 By:
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman
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Savvy real estate brokers have this advice: "Three things make for success -- location, location and location."

I know little about such things, so I can hardly comment on this. But I can guarantee the validity of a parallel remark about Judaism. "Three things make for a successful relationship: covenant, covenant and covenant."

From start to finish, the Torah is about that and only that: God covenants with Adam and Eve, then with Noah and, finally, with Abraham. Adam and Eve fall short of their side of the bargain, and are expelled from Eden. Noah comes through, and to this day, say the Rabbis, God sustains a Noahide covenant with non-Jews.

The covenant with Abraham is the one that the rest of the Torah celebrates, first and foremost at Sinai, but also as Israel is about to inherit its land. "You all stand here today," God announces, "to be admitted into a covenant." Several chapters later, God calls heaven and earth as eternal witnesses to its binding agreement.

None of these covenants comes as a surprise, certainly not the Jewish one that is repeated as a veritable litany, not only in Torah but by the rabbis who commented on it. The rabbis posit another covenant, however, that does prove somewhat astounding. There, too, we are supposed to live by it, and there, too, God calls heaven and earth as witnesses.

But it is a strange covenant, so strange that the Gemara which introduces it begins with the admission, "If it were not recorded in Torah, we would never dare claim it." Its oddity is that even though we are to live by it, it is not made with us; nor, however, is it made with anyone else! It is made with God's very own attributes, as if God makes the covenant with a personified version of the very things that make God God.

The 13 attributes in question form the centerpiece of Yom Kippur. They are the ones God shows Moses on Mt. Sinai. "Adonai, Adonai, God compassionate and merciful (Adonai, Adonai el rachum v'chanun)." God says to Moses, "Tell Israel that whenever they mention these attributes, I will pardon them."

We should wonder how God can make a covenant with impersonal attributes. Most commentators think these are qualities that are then personified, as if they are another of God's covenantal partners. That way, we enter Yom Kippur in fear of our sins, but knowing we're not alone. We have God's very attributes on our side, even arguing our case.

But there is another reading. Relationships depend not only on who, we make them with, but on the character of the interaction by which they are lived. So the attributes are not the personification of another partner; they are the essence of the manner in which all covenants are pursued. Relationships prove fulfilling only to the extent that we define them by God's attributes.

The Talmudic tale even stipulates what there is about the attributes that make them so essential. "They begin by mentioning Adonai twice," the rabbis explain, to show us that God remains faithful to the relationship even if we sin against it.

God says, in effect, "Adonai [the first time] indicates that I'm here before you sin; Adonai [the second time] says that I'm here after you sin. Just express repentance, and you will find me 'a God compassionate and merciful.' "

Every relationship is its own covenant, and the best ones are meant to be lasting. But they endure not just because of the two persons involved, but because of the kind of trust on which they are based. Both parts of a covenant -- the partners and the relationship -- require eternal witnesses. So heaven and earth are summoned for them both: Here, in our sedra, they testify to the partners; in the Talmud, they attest to the foundational attributes that bring a true partnership about.

This Shabbat, we explore covenantal partners; on Yom Kippur, we celebrate the covenantal relationship. From now till then, we are to keep both in mind.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor at HUC-JIR in New York.


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