Brit Olam: A Covenant With Our World

Rabbi Eli Freedman delivered this sermon during the Yom Kippur morning services.

According to the Torah, who were the first Jews? I heard some Adam and Eves, I heard some Abraham and Sarahs, I think I heard someone say “my grandmother!” The correct answer is Abraham and Sarah, but it is a common misnomer to think that Adam and Eve were actually the first Jews. They are the first people, but it is not until twelve chapters into Genesis that we are introduced to Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch of Judaism. If the Torah is the story of the Jewish people, why not start with Abraham and Sarah?

The authors and editors of the Torah were making an important point by telling a series of pre-stories before our progenitors arrive on the scene. The first four stories in the Torah all end poorly. Adam and Eve get expelled from the Garden, Cain kills his brother Abel, God destroys the entire world with a flood, and, in the Tower of Babel, God confounds our languages and scatters us across the world.

So why begin the Torah with so many negative stories of failure? In his book, A Lifetime of Genesis: An Exploration of and Personal Journey Through the Covenant of Abraham in Genesis, my teacher and Rodeph Shalom confirmand, Rabbi Henry Zoob, argues that the unifying theme of Genesis (and much of the Torah) is the Covenant of Abraham and Sarah. And for that precise reason, the editors of the Torah made a point to include stories of the pre-Covenant world.

According to Rabbi Zoob, these first four stories of Genesis teach us that the pre-Abraham and Sarah world could not function properly because it was missing the covenantal relationship between God and people. Although God spoke to Adam and Eve, and even walked with Noah, the world was not complete because it lacked brit – covenant.

The Hebrew word brit refers to something that binds, a contract, a pact that brings two parties together. We are most familiar with this word in the context of brit milah or bris, when we welcome a male child into the covenant using the ritual of circumcision. Of course for female children, we also welcome them into the exact same covenant using the same prayers. We are welcoming these children into the same covenant that was made with Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12, when God commanded: “Go forth from your native land and from your ancestral house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”

It’s a pretty basic covenant; Abraham and Sarah are asked to do two things – leave their native land for Israel and to be a blessing. In return, they will be blessed and prosperous.

So why is the world so much better with this covenant than without? This is best illustrated with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah; the first test of the covenant. We read in Genesis 18:17-19: “Now Adonai had said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of Adonai by doing what is just and right (tzedek u’mishpat)…” God tells Abraham about the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. And what does Abraham do? He stands up to God and says, “Not cool, God. You can’t just sweep the innocent away with the guilty.” Abraham then proceeds to bargain with God; asking God to spare the city if there are fifty, or forty-five, or forty… all the way down to two innocent people.

Now, compare this with Noah. God tells Noah the entire world is going to be destroyed by a flood. Does Noah put up a fight? Argue with God? Say, “Whoa God, you can’t just destroy the whole world?” No, Noah blindly follows God’s instructions, accepting his fate. Noah is not in true relationship with God.

In a pre-covenant world, God runs the show and humankind is simply along for the ride without any responsibility or obligation. Being in covenant with God and our world requires that we, like Abraham and Sarah, are a blessing. To be a blessing is to stand up for what is tzedek u’mishpat, just and right.

The covenant of Abraham and Sarah was then renewed by Moses and the Israelites in the desert. We read from Parashat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-14) this morning: “You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God…to enter into the covenant of Adonai your God… I make this covenant…not with you alone; but…[also] with those who are not with us here this day.”

We are all a part of the covenant. Those who were there that day with Moses and those who weren’t — traditionally understood to mean the future generations, all of us.

We stand this day, all of us, before Adonai our God, to take our place in the covenant. To be a blessing. This covenantal relationship is what drives me to work for justice in this world. This is why I chose the words on my tallit, from Rabbi Tarfon — “Lo aleicha… It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We are partners with God in the creation of our world. To uphold our end of the covenant, we are not free to desist from the work. Rabbi Tarfon’s words also remind us that we do not have to do this work alone. No single person is responsible for fulfilling our human part of the covenant; each of us, doing our small part, together, fulfills our end of the deal.

On Tuesday, September 17, I received an email from a partner organization of ours, The New Sanctuary Movement: “We need your help. The nephew of one of our staff members has been detained for the last six months. He was issued a bond and has until Friday, September 20 to raise the money or else he will remain in detention for six more months before given another chance to apply for a bond. This individual identifies as LBGTQIA. As such, this individual is significantly more vulnerable to abuse, violence, and isolation within an environment already rife with human rights violations. NSM has already secured a sponsor in Philadelphia for this individual. His family here is ready to receive him with love and support. All that we need now is your help.”

I wasn’t sure if there was anything we could do, but I figured I could at least forward the message along to the chairs of our LGBTQIA Justice Task Force. Within minutes, I heard back from our lay leaders that wheels were in motion.

Over the next 24 hours, congregants sent emails and made phone calls to friends, other synagogues, and interfaith partners. The former leadership of Beth Ahavah, the LBGTQIA synagogue that merged with Rodeph Shalom, held an emergency meeting to allocate money from their Heritage Fund as part of our efforts. By Wednesday night, we had raised the money.

Our administrative staff then stepped up to expedite the check request. One of our lay-leaders then made a special trip to the synagogue to sign the check. And another RS member came to pick up the check up and deliver it personally. This was truly a congregational effort. It is not up to any single one of us to do the work, together we did not desist from fulfilling our part of the covenant.

Relationships are core to this work. One model for viewing our covenantal relationship is through the lense of marriage. Rabbi Rachel Adler, a professor at Hebrew Union College, writes about the idea of marriage to illustrate her overarching approach to covenant within Judaism.

Adler takes issue with the “traditional,” Orthodox, ketubah; specifically that a woman is acquired by her husband. Besides the obvious misogyny and heteronormativity, this text is problematic for Adler because it fails to express the “reciprocity and mutuality that characterize the bonds between two people who wish to sanctify their devotion to one another as permanent partners.”

Adler therefore turns to the notion of covenant, an ideal which provides a more fitting metaphor for the love that exists between two people. Drawing upon diverse examples of covenantal commitment and care found throughout our tradition, Adler composed a document she entitled a Brit Ahuvim, a Lovers’ Covenant, that could be used by any two people in a commitment ceremony.

For Adler, the “acquisition” approach to marriage is akin to the pre-covenant world; an unbalanced relationship with one partner calling all the shots. By contrast, Adler’s Brit Ahuvim, to quote from its own text, is: “…a holy covenant like the ancient covenants of our people, made in faithfulness and peace to stand forever. It is a covenant of distinction, like the covenant God made with Israel, saying, ‘You shall be My people, and I shall be your God’ (Jer. 30:22). It is a covenant of mutual lovingkindness like the wedding covenant between God and Zion.”

Guided by the principles of Adler’s Brit Ahuvim, our congregation is ready to take a new look at what it means to be in relationship with God and our world. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, our movement’s social justice arm, recently introduced the Brit Olam, our covenant to create a world in which all people experience wholeness, justice, and compassion.

After months of listening to the concerns and stories of members of Reform communities throughout North America, Brit Olam, our covenant with the world, is an effort to support congregations working together, learning from one another, and effecting change on the local, state, and federal levels. Over 220 congregations have already signed on — imagine what we can accomplish together.

Let me give you an example from New York State where they piloted this model. Congregants in New York City were increasingly frustrated with their lack of influence in Albany. Specifically, they were working on passing legislation to more easily provide emergency contraception in hospitals and pharmacies, but kept coming up against roadblocks from legislators in upstate New York. Under the banner of Brit Olam, Reform congregations in Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, and across New York State successfully lobbied their elected representatives to support reproductive rights legislation that is in line with our Reform Jewish values.

This is just one of many examples of how congregations are fulfilling their part of the covenant. God called our ancestors to be a blessing, to stand up for what is just and right. To challenge the status quo. This is what is means to be in covenantal relationship with God and our world.

We stand up and fulfill our part of the covenant when we feed and educate neighborhood kids every summer at our Breaking Bread on Broad program, doing our part to alleviate hunger and raise up the next generation.

We stand up and fulfill our part of the covenant when we meet with city representative as part of the national “Do Not Stand Idly By” Campaign to reduce gun violence.

We stand up and fulfill our part of the covenant when we initiate an environmental task force to look at our own congregation’s consumption and use of disposables.

And we will stand up and fulfill our part of the covenant on Tuesday, December 17 when we welcome Rabbi Andrea L.Weiss and Lisa Weinberger, along with a multi-faith panel to speak about their book, American Values, Religious Voices. The book is a collection of letters from a wide range of scholars and religious leaders that were sent to the president, his administration, and congress during their first hundred days in office. In the introduction to the book, Rabbi Weiss writes: “Individually, it is hard to feel that one can have an impact on events unfolding around us. Collectively, we have the potential to speak truthfully and powerfully to those making critical decisions about our nation’s future.” Rabbi Weiss reminds us again, when we stand together, we fulfill our part of the covenant.

Following the panel, we will officially enter into the Brit Olam. In the spirit of Rabbi Adler’s Brit Ahuvim, we will have a ceremonial signing. Together as a congregation, we will sign our ketubah, our Brit Olam, and hang this beautiful document in our building as a constant reminder of our commitments.

As it says in our Torah portion this morning, “Atem nitzavim, all of you stand here today…” We stand together today to enter as a congregation into a new covenantal relationship, a Brit Olam, with other Jewish communities, with our world, and with God. It is incumbent upon us to take the lead in our relationship with this world because if we do not, no one else will. As it says in the midrash (Ecclesiasties Rabbah 7:13): “When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at My works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake, I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”

May we stand up and take our place in the covenant and help repair our world, together. Ken y’hi ratzon, May this be God’s will. Amen.