On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: The Commitment of Covenant - Parashat Ki Tova

In this week’s Parashah, Ki Tavo, we are told to follow the commandments and uphold our covenants, as there will be blessings if we do, but curses if we do not. Rabbi Rick Jacobs reflects on the various types of covenants that we experience and agree to throughout our lives, and the responsibilities, and indeed blessings, that come with keeping our word to each other, to God and to ourselves.

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us a little bit about the Torah portion of the week in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches about Parashat Ki Tavo. He asks us what it means to be in covenant and what your responsibility is to do it most fully.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Ki Tavo from not the very last parashah of the Book of Deuteronomy, but getting pretty close. So you can just do your Jewish calendar with me right now. If we're getting close to the end of Deuteronomy, it means we're getting close to Rosh HaShanah. We're getting close to a new year. So we're almost finished with our cycle of reading each week another parashah, another portion of the five books of Moses.

Ki Tavo is rich with this whole notion of, if you follow all the commandments, then you will be blessed. But if you don't, watch out. There will be curses and all kinds of horrific things that will happen. It really is a opportunity for us on this week's podcast to think about one particular core concept, not only of the Book of Deuteronomy, but really of Jewish life. And the concept is "b'rit," or "covenant." Now, you say, well, I know the concept of b'rit because I went to a b'rit milah, that would be the covenant of circumcision. Or I had one. Or I was a part of a community that welcomed a little boy on the eighth day of his life.

So "b'rit" means a covenant. There are all different types of them. I just want to stop for a moment about b'rit milah. Because for those of us who are blessed with daughters and sons, on the eighth day, the world stops when a boy is born. And you've got to have a b'rit milah even if it's the holiest day of the year. Yom Kippur, Shabbat-- nothing is more important. And then for the longest time, when girls were born, eh, you know, when you get around to it, maybe we'll have a little ritual of welcome, but only when it's convenient. And then we would only give little girls a name. And then the question came, well, why don't we give little girls a covenant? And so people said, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, no surgery. Excuse me, there are lots of signs of the covenant that are not surgical.

Now, maybe you remember a couple of weeks ago when we were doing the podcast and it was the circumcision of the heart. And that's actually a spiritual concept. But now when we welcome little girls, often, into the covenant, we do so maybe by wrapping them in a tallit or some expression, that they get not only a beautiful name, but they are entered into the covenant. Now, what does that mean, to be entered into a covenant? A covenant is an agreement. It is a treaty. It is something that obligates not just one side, but two sides. So to be entered into the covenant, you're in covenant with all Jewish people. You're in covenant with God, which means that we have certain responsibilities. Other members of the Jewish people have responsibilities towards us, and we to them. And then if we add the theological dimension-- covenant is also an obligation we have to follow God's teachings.

Now, if we think about it, the word "b'rit" occurs almost 200 times in the Hebrew Bible. And if you take out the concept of covenant, b'rit, the Book of Deuteronomy pretty much collapses. And one could argue that much of Jewish life would also collapse. In the Book of Deuteronomy, very often the whole structure of the covenant follows the ancient Near Eastern treaties that would have happened between one people and another. And the ancient Israelites could understand that was a beautiful way to express our commitment to God, God to us, us to our fellow Jews, and our fellow Jews to us. So the Book of Deuteronomy starts with a preamble, announces all of the specific times Moses enters in covenant on behalf of God and the Jewish people. Then there's a historical prologue-- tells the journey of the Jewish people through the desert, all the significant moments-- kind of gives us a sense. And then there are the stipulations. What are the obligations, the Ten Commandments, the Sh'ma-- all of these very specific and important demands. And then it goes on to say there are curses if one violates the treaty, the covenant. And there are rewards, or blessings. Then there are witnesses in the Book of Deuteronomy. It's heaven and earth. And in this week's parashah, we have, again, the blessings and the curses. But it's built on the whole Book of Deuteronomy.

We think about the whole notion of covenant. It's a lot like a marriage. And you know that in a Jewish wedding ceremony we have a ketubah, a written contract, that in the most traditional form is not egalitarian. It's not between the bride and the groom. It's really between the groom and the bride's parents, and mostly the bride's father. Now, in modern egalitarian non-Orthodox Judaism, there's no obligation that a groom has that a bride doesn't also have. So it's very much on both of their shoulders. And if you think about a ketubah, very often, they talk in the language of aspiration-- let us make a deep commitment to one another, that we're going to be present and we're going to care for one another in sickness and health-- all these wonderful, specific things. And then, there's this notion that, well, could you write everything into a ketubah? Or is the fundamental act of being covenanted with another person to say that you're going to be there through the good times, when things are easy, when things get really difficult? And you can't write out all of the potential obligations that a union has.

It is, I think, reminding us, that if we think about what it means to be in that deep covenant with a people, with God, or with a life partner, it involves commitment. It's not when I feel like it or when I'm in the mood to be in a covenant. It weighs on me. And it demands of me. And I think that one of the things we look at in contemporary Jewish life is to say, well, we've gotten to a point where maybe it feels like it's just kind of when someone is inspired to do something-- do something Jewish. What does it mean to actually feel obligated to other people? To know that the community is gathering for prayer tonight? And if I'm not there, maybe there wouldn't be a quorum? If I'm not willing to carry the responsibility, will anyone?

And I used to love, when I was a congregational rabbi, to do baby namings on Friday night. And the mothers and fathers would say, well, I don't know all the people who are going to be there. And I'd say, bingo, that's exactly the point. You're making a covenant with people you've not yet met and haven't yet met you. But they're going to feel a sense of obligation and blessing that you'll be willing to extend yourself for them and they for you. If I think about the modern world, like, that feels like a piece missing so often in our lives. And that covenant is critical. Now, some of our congregations are coming up with new covenants of membership, that joining a community isn't just, I write a check or I fill out some forms. But what is my obligation to that community? And what is the congregation's obligation to me? Again, entering into something not formal for the sake of being formal, but for spelling out, this is about real responsibility, real commitment. And it's a beautiful way to express it.

Our social justice hub of our Reform movement called the Religious Action Center in Washington, DC, has a very, very exciting undertaking called Brit Olam, the everlasting covenant. Or it could be translated as covenant with the world, with the universe. And we have about a couple hundred of our congregations that are deep into this b'rit, this covenant that, whether it's climate change, or it's environmental justice, racial justice, reproductive justice, immigrant justice, gun violence prevention-- it's not just, these aren't just issues that we should fight for when we have some extra time or when we feel it. There's an obligation to stand up and to express this.

So as we in Ki Tavo come towards the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, the Jewish people in antiquity are reenacting the covenant, affirming the core stipulations, the core obligations, the core mutuality. Now, I just have to spend the last few moments just reflecting on, it's one thing to have a covenant with a life partner. You're equals. You're both people. But what does it mean to be in covenant with God? I mean, it's hardly a relationship of equals. And what happens when I do all the things I'm obligated to do, and my life isn't filled with blessing? It's filled with illness and misfortune and maybe even poverty. Is that punishment? Is that God not upholding God's part of the covenant? And I think that, as the Jewish peoples journey through history, there are times when we have felt very much the presence and the blessing of God fully in this covenant with us. And there are times, particularly I think-- as many of us do-- of the Second World War and the Holocaust and say, this notion of covenant, it's just made up. There's not an obligation on God's part to us. And maybe that's just the time when the covenant is in a low phase. But we still find ourselves expressing our commitment. And that's true in a marriage. There are times that are difficult. There are times when there's being out of sorts. But for couples who have been married for a long stretch, been deeply committed, you weather those. Jewish people weather those. And, again, you may have a traditional belief. You may not. But as we conclude or have another couple of parshiyot, let's think about the nature of covenant in our lives-- the people to whom we are covenanted with. We've got to show up. We've got to be present, whether it's for a b'rit milah or b'rit banot for girls, whether it might be the way in which we think of Shabbat as a sign of a covenant. The rainbow in Jewish tradition goes back to the story of Noah. And the rainbow is a sign of the covenant between God and all that lives. We have signs of the covenant. And then we have the obligations of the covenant. Will we always get back what we put in? No. The last thought was a beautiful teaching my rabbi, Rabbi Jack Stern, used to always say to wedding couples. He used to say, marriage is a 60-40 proposition. Always put in 60, and be ready to receive 40. What he meant was, don't always be concerned about getting back what you put in.

So as we affirm the covenants in our lives with our relationships, with our children, perhaps if we have, are blessed with children, the children in our community are all part of that community. And one of the ways in which, even during times when we don't feel the reciprocity of that covenant, but we're still all in and putting in more than just our 50%-- putting in our 60%, and hoping that everyone else does so that we can have a world of blessing and a world of wholeness and a world of deep commitment one to the other.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend. For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident.

On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, L'hitroat!