A Meaningful Life is a Covenantal One: Parashat Yitro – January 29, 2016


Yesterday afternoon, I picked up my bag and just before I hurled myself out of the door, into the light of the sunny afternoon to head off to teach, I expressed deep gratitude. “Thank you, Hillary. Thank you.”

No, I am not talking about anyone running for president right now. I am talking about my son’s nanny, Hillary. The person I trust with my most precious, and only child, Julius. As a new mom, I can’t just leave the house anymore. I have to intentionally throw myself out because staying in that little cherub’s presence is one of the strongest pulls I have ever known. And, to leave him in the hands of another person takes… well… trust. Deep trust. The kind of trust that makes those trust fall exercises at corporate retreats seem like childs’ play. Because he is my world.

Actually, what my wife Melissa and I have with Hillary is absolute and complete trust; and confidence; and gratitude. Why? Because what we have goes beyond the job description we hastily typed up when we hired her. The kind of relationship we have can only be described as a covenantal relationship. Covenantal relationships require presence and the honest fulfillment of duties and responsibilities towards parties who deeply want the best for one another. And as she fulfills her duty to care for our child, we fulfill our duty to her by paying her a living wage, respecting her time, providing a comfortable environment, and setting her up for the successful performance of her work. Covenantal relationships are holy. And strong. Ours has to be, otherwise, I couldn’t force myself out of the presence of my little one. A life lived in sincere, sacred covenant with others defines a life of meaning.

And, actually, as I think about it, this DOES have to do with Hillary (who is running for president) and also Bernie and Martin and Donald and Jeb and Ted and Carly and Ben and Chris and everyone else. This election and every election and every appointment of every public servant, we as the public, entrust to our political leaders the power to govern over our well-being. We pledge our support for them at the ballot box and then. ideally, we would be able to trust that they would make decisions fairly, responsibly and in the best interest of all. We should be able to embrace a covenant of responsibility with our leaders. That’s the idea anyway. And, that’s why they have a swearing in ceremony where they pledge to see their role as one of deep importance, and in covenant with their constituents.

Many of us clergy do, in fact, literally make a covenant, that is we write up a berit/ a covenantal document, with the congregations we serve– to honor and respect one another, to serve and be there when it counts, and to not expect superhuman presence at all things. It is a covenantal relationship full of good will, high standards, and integrity.

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, features a moment of covenant, THE quintessential covenantal moment in the Torah between God and the Israelites. Famously, Moses ascends Mount Sinai and comes down with the first sacred contract between the Israelites and God– the ten commandments. He tells them that this is the law – and the Israelites pledge– sealing their covenant outlined in the Torah,
Kol asher diber Adonai, na’aseh!
כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה נַעֲשֶׂה
All that you have said, Adonai, we will do.

A sacred promise by a nation to their God.

This covenant was essentially the corporate sealing of the earlier individual covenant that Abraham had made with God 10 generations prior. You may not remember this gory scene, but Abraham, in Genesis 15, at God’s instruction, took a heifer of three years old, and a she-goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon, and he divided them in half and laid them out on the ground opposite one another. As if to say that “if I break my covenant with you, may I, too, suffer the same fate.”

Later, we read, too, that Abraham makes the sign of covenant on himself by performing a self-circumcision; not quite cutting himself in half, but cutting himself nonetheless, with the same implication. The word in Hebrew for circumcision is “berit milah” — which means covenant of circumcision.

Perhaps these covenants, that were enacted through the cutting of flesh, is why, in Hebrew, the verb meaning to seal a covenant translates literally as “to cut”– you cut a covenant. The word is karat/cut. It was much harder to reneg on promises made when one cuts a covenant like that right?!

Fortunately, wedding covenants aren’t “cut” this way. No cut hands and hand shaking– no becoming blood brothers. But they ARE made in front of everybody. Or at least in front of witnesses, who are there to keep you each honest, ideally.

Think about how you have made the covenants in your life– how did they begin? How were they sealed? What meaning do they bring to your life?

If you still wonder about the significance of covenants, consider the covenant we make with true friends– it is because of a covenant, that is a sacred relationship, that we would never betray or reveal the confidence of the other, or bail on a promise to pick the other up from the airport. Or the covenant we make with our therapists to not betray our confidence.

It is my contention that covenants are the the glue that holds society together; they make lives work, and form the sturdy and foundational bonds that give life meaning. They are promises that enrich our lives. And though sometimes they are hard to make or difficult to uphold, they imbue our lives with meaning as they give integrity to our connection to others.

So on this week’s reading of the covenantal promise between Israelites and God, let us celebrate the covenantal relationships we have. I am thrilled to stand here today with people like Melissa with whom I made a covenant 13 years ago as romantic partners and later as spouses, and Cantor Shula, with whom I made a sacred covenant as colleagues in sacred work, and all of you here tonight with whom I’m in sacred relationship as rabbi. This is what matters. This is what gives my life meaning. Covenants like this are what good eulogies are made of- Who are you? To whom are you accountable? With whom are you in covenant? Honor that. Celebrate that.

I wrote this sermon tonight to honor another person with whom I was in sacred covenant. My teacher, Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, known as Dr. Borowitz– he was regarded in academic circles as a giant of the field of theology– in fact, for a long time he was the only one focused on Jewish theology– and he birthed the concept of Covenant Theology– exploring the importance of relationships, focusing on that between people and God, but also, personally, sharing with me the honor and joy and respect fulfilled by covenants with his own dearest, his wife and three daughters.

Dr. Borowitz wrote that his feeling of covenantal relationship with God, too, would supportively challenge him and “lift [him] far above [himself] in aspiration and, often, in consequent action. [He was] surprised, grateful, honored, commissioned by this intimacy…” 

One point troubled Dr. Borowitz – and many in our own community, for many many years. You see, he refused to sign the ordination certificates of gay and lesbian rabbinic graduates. I was proud to be part of one of his classes that inquired as to why he was so prejudiced. And, we found out that it was in part because gay and lesbians could not form these kind of deep, covenantal relationships with a spouse or children.

Of course, as a class, we reminded him that we could certainly engage in these types of relationships and clearly straight people could live a life without these things. To his credit, he gave a visible “hmm.” Not in a disapproving way, but rather in a, “I never thought of that way” way. Two years later, after I received my smicha, I sat down with Dr. Borowitz and asked him to sign it. We discussed family covenant for about 20 minutes; he was still insistent upon everyone having these things, which from his perspective makes sense and is sweet, but is not entirely practical or desirable. And, I reminded him that there was no way we would be able to guarantee that or not. Finally he said, “Heather, give me the pen.” From there, he began to sign others’ as well.

The covenantal relationship we had, as teacher and student, provided the trust, honesty and integrity needed for me to challenge this revered 81 year old giant, and him to consider my personal perspective. What a beautiful testament to the covenantal relationship we had as student and teacher. And especially to his magnificent personal integrity. Dr. Borowitz died peacefully at home in Stamford, CT, last week, at the age of 91, and was laid to rest this past Monday. His life was built on being engaged and fully present, open and responsible to the covenantal relationships he had with others– it was a beautiful life because he made it so. May we all benefit from engaging in covenantal relationships in this way.

Now as we turn to the Amidah, think about your own covenants… What covenants have you built your life around? How do they enrich your life?

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