Robert Frost ends his magnificent poem, "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," with the words, "The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep." Frost's poem speaks to inherent sense of restlessness. We are always looking around the next corner. Our lives reflect the motto of the Canadian Bureau of Tourism: "keep exploring."
Our ancestor Abraham may have felt the same way. His life began in Mesopotamia and included sojourns across the ancient Near East. In fact, the first words God says to Abraham call upon him to begin a journey. " 'Get you from your land, your birthplace, your father's house, to the land that I will show you,' " (Genesis 12:1). Numerous interpretations of these words fill our commentaries. One extraordinary one is offered by the S'fat Emet. " 'Get you from your land,' " he says, is an eternal command, instructing each of us to "always keep walking." "'To the land that I will show you' " is, according to the S'fat Emet, not only a particular destination, but also "always some new attainment." We are constantly moving toward something new. That's why, he says, "the human being is called a walker. Whoever stands still is not renewed, for nature holds him fast. The angels are above nature . . . but the person has to keep walking" (see Arthur Green, ed., The Language of Truth: Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, [Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1998] pp. 22-23).
We are restless people, eternal walkers on a journey to the Promised Land. In other words, we have promises we keep. They differ for each of us but we might see them through a few categories. First, like Abraham, we have promises to ourselves. God says to Abraham: Lech l'cha, "Get you from your land, (or, "You shall go forth,") and "you" is in the singular imperative form. Abraham has promises to keep for himself. Abraham's promise is to be a blessing, to help bring the world from what it is to what it ought to be. This challenge is a difficult one. It requires us to "keep on walking," to avoid complacency and satisfaction with the status quo.
I recently read my daughter a story by Maurice Sendak that taught this lesson beautifully. In Higglety Pigglety Pop!, ([New York: HarperCollins, 1995])he tells a story about a pampered dog. This little dog had everything. She had her own pillows, comb, and brush. She had two windows in her room and a warm red sweater. She had two nice bowls to eat from and a master who loved her. Despite all this, she left home one day, explaining, "I am discontented. I want something I do not have. There must be more to life than having everything!" (ibid., p. 4). Of course this dog is right. We all want something more than getting by. We want to be who we are able to become. This is a promise we make to ourselves.
Yet, Abraham has promises to keep not only for himself. He also has promises to keep for the future. So do we. As Jews we live, according to philosopher Harold Fisch, by "the unappeased memory of a future still to be fulfilled" (Harold Fisch, A Remembered Future: A Study in Literary Mythology [Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1984], p. 94). We are responsible to the generations yet to be. The framework for understanding this promise is the b'rit, "covenant," which is described in our Torah reading. Abraham agrees to walk in God's ways and God agrees that Abraham's descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. A covenant requires trust. God trusts that Abraham will fulfill his promises; Abraham trusts that God will do so as well. This notion of trust helps us understand the meaning of emunah, "faith," in Jewish tradition. To have faith is not to believe in a creed; it is to trust in a promise. It is to live within a covenant.
What does this way of life entail? It is not simply following halachah, the Jewish legal code. Perhaps the best way to understand the meaning of covenant is to compare it with a contract. A contract is a legal document. It specifies the obligations of both parties, and if one or the other does not fulfill those obligations the contract is null and void. A covenant is more like a marriage. It flows out of a sense of identification and love, with an open ended commitment that both parties will be there for one another. In a covenant, the relationship can grow and change without being renegotiated; what sustains a covenant is the commitment of both parties to one another.
Education and ritual nurture that commitment. They also help create a community that represents the human side of that covenant in each generation. As Daniel Elazar, one of Jewry's preeminent political philosophers put it, covenant "expresses the idea that people can freely create communities and politics, peoples and publics, and civil society through such morally grounded and sustained compacts (whether religious or otherwise in impetus), establishing thereby enduring partnerships" (People and Polity [Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989], p. 19). A covenant is eternal not because of an external law that coerces its enforcement. Rather, each generation preserves the rituals and conveys the teaching that created the covenant in the first place, and lives in a way that allows the covenant to continue in the future.
As of this writing in 2009, Rabbi Evan Moffic was serving as senior rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, Illinois.