The Revolutionary Idea of Covenant
BY RABBI DORON PEREZ
Last month, Mizrachi Press and Gefen Publishing House released “The Jewish State – From Opposition to Opportunity” by Rabbi Doron Perez, Executive Chairman of World Mizrachi. The following essay is adapted from the book.
Human life is first and foremost about relationships, particularly those that matter to us most. We have different types of relationships – with our families, our communities, and with G-d. According to Jewish tradition, there is one central organizing principle to all these critical relationships. The Tanach introduces us to one of the most transformative ideas in all of religious history – the concept of a brit.
Mentioned 283 times in Tanach, this revolutionary idea creates a unique framework to define the nature of the relationships between G-d and humanity, G-d and the Jewish people as a whole, G-d and each of the founding fathers of the Jewish people, the founders and their descendants, and indeed, the relationships among all members of the Jewish people for all generations. The brit is the paradigmatic framework through which Jews are charged to relate to each other, to their historic community, and to Hashem.
Covenant versus contract
The brit forges a covenantal bond beyond what the rational human mind can conjure on its own. To understand this transcendental, divinely inspired concept, we must juxtapose it with the human constructs of agreements and contracts.
One of the most influential political philosophers, Englishman Thomas Hobbes, was the first to define the organizing principle of human society and the state as “the social contract.” In his 1651 book Leviathan, he described the way human beings create societies through a type of social contract in which members of society commit to collectively protecting their own individual rights. The main motivations of a functional society are self-interest and self-preservation. People agree to a central governing mechanism to try to ensure that no one harms another, in an attempt to live and let live.
A biblical covenant could not be more different. While the social contract focuses predominantly on self-interest and personal benefit, the covenant focuses on the collective. The focus is less on the protection of individual rights and more on people’s responsibility to society as a whole. While preserving individuality and personal dignity in the process, a covenantal system encourages the individual to be driven by a commitment to the greater good. The goal of the individual in a covenantal system is to dedicate oneself for the sake of society as opposed to utilizing society to serve oneself.
This can only be done when individuals transcend personal gain and protection of their own individual space and focus on fulfilling the needs of others. Values and moral commitment are at the heart of the covenant, whereas parochial individual needs and interests are at the heart of normative agreements and contracts. Contracts protect rights; covenants delineate mutual responsibilities. Contracts are built on what each party can get; covenants specify what each party ought to give. Contracts are self-serving; covenants transcend the self.
Rav Kook highlights this very distinction between general human societies and a distinctly Jewish one. A general society may be compared to a large insurance company; in essence, every citizen is ensuring his or her personal needs by being part of this society. Not so a Jewish society, which should be based first and foremost on mutual values and lofty moral and spiritual ideals (Orot Yisrael 6:7).
An everlasting bond
The biblical covenant is an everlasting binding agreement. Those who commit to it enter a new entity of unparalleled dedication and commitment in which the other is the focus. G-d binds Himself in an eternal bond, a divine contract, as a party in an agreement that He is bound by. A brit is not only something that binds G-d to a people and the Jewish people to G-d, but it is something that binds all Jews across generations. Even those yet to be born are committed to this bond.
Multiple covenants appear at every critical juncture of Jewish history, always reinforcing and expanding mutual commitment. Particularly at times of challenge and suffering, G-d would remember His commitment to and covenant with His people. Immediately prior to the Exodus, G-d responds to Moshe’s plea regarding Bnei Yisrael’s suffering and says that He will surely redeem them, as He remembers the covenant that He made with their forefathers. So too, later on at the end of the horrific curses in Sefer Vayikra, G-d says that He will remember the covenant made with all three of the forefathers and will not forsake His people despite anything they have done. At the foot of Har Sinai, an additional covenant is made for the Jewish people to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Shemot 19).
With the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Torah at Sinai, the Jewish people say the eternal words of “na’aseh v’nishmah,” “We will do and we will listen,” committing themselves as a people to the values of the Torah (Shemot 24:7). Before entry into the Land, as the entire new generation stands together, Moshe enacts another covenant, this time explicitly binding all Jews for all generations as part of the eternal spiritual entity of Knesset Yisrael (Devarim 29).
Rights versus responsibilities
At the very core of all covenantal relationships is the primary value of responsibilities.
Commitment and responsibility to others is the very heart of a Torah-based civil society, as opposed to the Western ideal of protecting personal security and mutual self-interest. Similar to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Constitution of the United States speaks of the “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Human law enshrines rights, while Jewish law focuses on responsibilities.
Fascinatingly, nowhere in the Torah is there a specific focus on individual rights. Throughout the Torah, though, there is a focus on duties and responsibilities, epitomized in the 613 mitzvot. In the Torah’s perspective, all individual rights stem directly from the personal responsibility that the Torah places on the individual. If I am personally responsible for my moral behavior and called upon to act with loving-kindness to others, then ipso facto, I and all others have inalienable individual rights. It is the duty to be kind and considerate to others that begets the rights of one and all.
Why does the Torah focus on responsibilities as opposed to rights?
First, it seems that a major shortcoming of focusing primarily on rights is that it is not clear exactly who is responsible to provide them. For example, if I have the right to food and sustenance, should I be solely responsible for providing it? Perhaps others should also be responsible – my family, community, government, or society at large? This can lead to dependency and a sense of privilege and entitlement; after all, if I have a right to something without being responsible to provide it for myself, then I am entitled to receive it from someone else.
Second, there is another essential difference between human law and divinely mandated law. Rabbeinu Nissim explains that the primary focus of civil law is to create a functional and organized society, whereas the main focus of civil law from a Torah point of view is of a spiritual nature – to create a more G-dly society (Derashot HaRan, 11).
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Pines, a student of Rav Kook, explains this further. He argues that societies rooted in human civil law can ultimately create an orderly society, by preventing people from hurting one another and damaging each other’s property. The aim of mishpat (Jewish law), though, is to transform human beings spiritually and morally – to help people be more selfless and less selfish and to encourage them not to act on animalistic instincts, but rather on moral conscience, to aim to do what is right rather than what is convenient, and to be driven by values and not by expedience (Mussar HaMikra v’HaTalmud, 36).
In short, a legal system rooted in human consensus alone is a collective effort to ensure the protection of individual rights – to guard against mutual harm. This is very noble, and the Western world has done much to advance the dignity of all human beings. But the Torah requires more. The aim is no less than a heavenly society collectively committed to the ethic of personal responsibility – a life of personal and communal spiritual transformation in which individuals proactively partner with G-d in creating a better and more just society, by seeing all human beings as created in His image.
The covenantal relationship at the heart of Jewish society is thus based on mutual responsibility to one another and the good of society as a whole. The idea of the covenantal relationship in Judaism is so positively transformative that it is seen as the very ideal that the nations of the world will wish to emulate in aiming to build a better society. In the famous words of Yishayahu the prophet, a Jewish society will be a source of light to the nations: “I, the L-rd, have called you to display My righteousness, and I will take you by the hand and guard you, and I will make you [the Jewish people] an exemplar of a covenantal nation, a light to the nations” (Yishayahu 42:6).
It is this eternal bond of the Jewish people among each other, with all generations both before and after, and with their G-d that ought to animate the ongoing project of Jewish statehood.
Rabbi Doron Perez is the Executive Chairman of World Mizrachi.