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Covenant, Commandment and You

Sermon Parshat Ekev 5780

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

I was asked by a bar mitzvah student what the difference is between commandment, mitzvah, and covenant, berit. I explained that commanded mitzvot are ethical acts we are ordered to fulfill, while covenant, berit, is a kind of sacred contract, a deal we make with God: if we do this, then God will do that. A covenant can include mitzvot, but essentially it is a deal, a quid pro quo. It limits us to a course of action that is specified in the contract, the berit—and oddly, it also limits God, who is stuck doing whatever God promised us if we stuck to the rules.

I know that I believe in mitzvot, the moral and ritual ways we Jews structure our conduct. But while I believe in berit, I wonder if it really works that way.

So if you do good things do you expect a reward? When you act badly do you anticipate punishment?

If you answered yes to those questions our Torah portion this week is for you!

Ekev begins with the classic statement of the central covenant of Deuteronomy: v’hayah ekev tishm’un et hamishpatim ha’eileh, ushmartem va’asitem otam… if you listen to and observe these laws and guard them and do them, the Lord your God will guard you, and the covenant and the kindness that God swore to your ancestors… God will love you and bless you and multiply you, and God will bless the fruit of your wombs and fruit of your lands… You shall be blessed above all other people… the Lord will protect you from all sickness and dread diseases…” And so on.

A bit later, the message is repeated in a different way: “Kol hamitzvah asher anochi m’tzavcha hayom tishm’run la’asot… All the commandments that I command you today you shall guard and observe to do them, that you will therefore live long and thrive and increase and inherit the land that I swore to your ancestors.”

In other words, the Deuteronomic Covenant of perfect, complete, purely conditional love. If we do what God wants, we will be rewarded. If we don’t do what God wants, we will be punished. This is, to paraphrase the title of a famous book on this subject, the theology of why good things happen to good people and why bad things happen to bad people.

The opening word of our Torah portion, which gives it its title, is quite intriguing. The word Ekev means “something that follows inevitably.” It is derived from the word for heel, akav, and it is the source of the name of Jacob, Ya’akov, our great patriarchal ancestor and the true father of all Jews. Its linguistic meaning is that what is described by the word Ekev is going to definitely occur, just as your heel follows your toes when you walk.

The Book of Deuteronomy is very clear on this point: do good, follow mitzvot, and you will surely be rewarded. Fail to do good, in fact do evil, and you will just as surely be punished.

This theology is at the heart not only of Deuteronomy but of a great deal of religious thinking in this world. Of course, not everyone actually experiences this in our world, and so some religions move this covenant to the next world: do good in this life and you will get your reward in the Great Beyond, bye and bye, because you will go to heaven and enjoy bliss eternal. Do badly and you will be punished in the fires of hell. I’ve taught that in my Life After Death in Jewish Belief course in our Adult Education Academy. But that idea comes much later in Judaism. Devarim, and Ekev, don’t bother with afterlives at all. This covenant is for the here-and-now.

We can summarize this good old Deuteronomic Deal in just eight words: Do good, get prizes; do bad, get zapped.

Some of you may, in fact, believe that life always works this way. But for the rest of us the covenant as stated in Ekev causes some real problems. For we know that in our own lives it is not only the good who flourish and not only the wicked who are punished. In fact, the correlation between ethical action and reward often seems completely random, if not sometimes in inverse proportion. We all know of good people who suffer or die too young. And we all know of rotten people who seem to suffer not at all and flourish in spite of—or, occasionally, because of—their moral relativism.

In fact, sometimes it seems that, as that fine Jewish songwriter Billy Joel once put it, only the good die young.

Philosophy—and theology—have a word for the problem posed by this seeming paradox. It’s called theodicy, the key issue for most religious traditions. If I am supposed to be good, and goodness brings reward, why do bad things happen to good people? And, of course, why do good things happen to bad people?

The examples we could cite are legion. Without resorting to the eternal problem that the Holocaust poses to the Deuteronomic covenant, how can we explain the randomness of people who have died from COVID-19? And how can we ever rationalize the deaths of children, the suffering of innocents? How can we see the triumph of unpunished evildoers or the failure of good, caring tzadiks and still believe? Doesn’t this vitiate the whole notion of covenant?

What are we to make of this flat statement in the Torah that doing right makes for happiness, and that doing evil leads to destruction?

A friend and past guest on Too Jewish, Rabbi Harold Kushner, wrote a fine, useful book called “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” I recommend it often to those who have suffered unexpected loss. It is a thoughtful, helpful, sincere, caring work. The only problem with it is that, while it raises all the right questions, it provides very few answers. Comfort, yes. Insight even. But answers? No—because, as Rabbi Kushner always notes, it is not called “Why do bad things happen to good people?” but “When bad things happen to good people”, assuming the essential reality of tragedy and injustice in our world.

So what answers are there to provide? Without resorting to the mild cheat of claiming that God will rectify all these injustices in the World to Come, how do we address this enormous challenge posed by theodicy, by the apparent falseness of our Torah portion of Ekev?

I believe that we do so by reframing the discussion.

The truth is, of course, that there are many, many things in life we do not control. Natural disasters, pandemics, unemployment, taxes, the stock market, terror attacks, hereditary illnesses, economic change, the weather and much, much more. In fact, when you think about it, our own actions, for good or evil, are just about the only things we do control.

We have the capacity to do mitzvot, to fulfill moral acts in a practical way. When we choose to do so on a regular, daily basis we have the ability to make ourselves good. When we choose to do otherwise, to lie, cheat, steal, and injure, or sometimes just ignore the needs of others in a selfish way, we cause damage to our own character.

In effect, what Ekev teaches us is that we have been given the power and strength to remake ourselves as moral beings. We can become good by acting well. We can create goodness, perhaps even holiness, by fulfilling commandment. We cannot guarantee ourselves or those we love will be safe from disease. We cannot prevent war. We cannot protect against the painful vicissitudes of deep misfortune. We cannot always protect our loyal friends from unemployment and economic disaster.

But we can, and we should, seek to perfect ourselves and our actions, make our own conduct better and holier. We should do everything we can to avoid injuring others, both their health and their well-being. We can help the stranger, support the refugee and immigrant. We can seek to help those who are unemployed, call those who are ill, comfort those who are bereaved. If we can do these things, we will fulfill our end of the covenant, hold up our side of the berit, and in this way serve God and begin to redeem this world.

As the central message in Ekev frames the issue, “What does the Lord your God ask of you? Only to revere the Lord your God, to walk in all God’s ways, to love God, serve the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul, to keep the mitzvot, the commandments… befriend the stranger.” To live a good life, to keep up our end of the berit, the covenant, to make ourselves and our lives good, whatever the circumstances that swirl around us.

By coming to understand that the question is not “why is this world unfair” but “what can I make of myself morally”, we learn that although we are only mortal, and limited, and unable to control our world even by mitzvot, we may nonetheless create great ethical beauty and supreme moments of moral holiness.

And that is, after all, the real point of both commandment, and covenant. That is the true goal of life: to seek good with all of our abilities.

May this be our will. And God’s.

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