Parashat Vayera / A Level Above Love

The covenant that Abraham was the first to sign, and that we imprint in our flesh and undertake in our sanctification of our love relationship before our Maker, has not disappeared from our lives.

Yair Caspi
'Hagar and Ishmael,' by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (circa 1732).
'Hagar and Ishmael,' by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (circa 1732).Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Yair Caspi

In a world that has lost national, social and religious values once thought supreme, love remains the ultimate, whose worth none contest. Those who worship it believe everything must be done to find love and, if it is lost, that one must seek another love.

The Bible has another level above love. It did not invent the concept, but borrowed it from agreements monarchs in ancient times signed with one another or proposed to their subjects in return for loyalty. Typically, the Bible takes the covenant and raises it to a new context. The covenant is the proposal we received from the owner of reality and it includes our human role and obligations and their reward or punishment. If you accept your role, the human is told, you will receive the promise that reality will be protected.

And I will make My covenant between Me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly, we read at the end of last weeks Torah portion, . And I will establish My covenant between Me and thee and thy seed after thee throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant. and I will be their God. And as for thee, thou shalt keep My covenant, thou, and thy seed after thee throughout their generations (Genesis 17:2-9).

Acceptance of the covenant is close to what we call acknowledging reality. However, biblical reality includes insight into our role in the world and its limits, and the possibility that the Minister of Reality has special missions for various groups, such as creation of a model society.

The proposer of the covenant does not negotiate. Yet, although we cannot decide what the covenant contains, we can identify the proposal, choosing to accept or reject the covenant. Perhaps we will need to try other deals leading nowhere to discover that the biblical proposal for a covenant is the best we can hope for.

When weighing whether or not to enter into a significant human partnership, such as a love relationship, we ask ourselves whether it will be pleasant, whether it is worthwhile. The Bible proposes another question: Besides attraction and compatibility, will we have a possible ally for a shared role?

A relationships that become a covenant will survive. The covenant was drawn up in the presence of the one who holds eternity. When the covenant becomes part of human time, something of the eternal enters, and our capacity for becoming more skillful in dealing with times hardships increases. This is the meaning of Rabbi Yohanan the Sandlers statement, An organization or partnership created to serve heaven will ultimately last (Pirkei Avot 4:11).

We maintain the covenants made in the presence of the Creator of the Universe even when some of the conditions for love no longer exist: Someone has become ill, has been fired, has lost some of his or her looks or has grown old. In love, we sign on with our human partner. There is another signatory to the covenant.

A covenant concerning a love relationship is not a private treaty but rather a chapter in our overall covenant with our world, our nation, the One who has assigned us our mission. When the covenant is violated, the method for canceling it is more complex.

Relationships focused solely on love collapse when the love has faded. Pulling out of a covenant requires us to ask additional questions: Has the covenant been violated? Is the violation fundamental? Did my partner in the relationship violate it, or is there in actuality a force majeure at play?: Am I still committed to the covenant? Do I have a partner who wants to mend and renew it and find the love that is lost? Covenants preserve long-standing marriages, where love waxes and wanes.

The covenant that Abraham, pioneer of the Hebrew journey, was the first to sign and that we imprint in our flesh, and undertake in our sanctification of our love relationship before our Maker, has not disappeared from our lives.

What we once reserved for the experience of the covenant, for the feeling of sanctification, we now seek in love. In order to find it there, we must upgrade our beloved. During moments of union, we sometimes imagine that we are privileged to be with a man or woman who is divine – in place of saying that the Shekhina (the divine presence) was present.

The unconscious covenant is the answer to one of the riddles truly puzzling us: Why does she stay with a man she has nothing in common with? Perhaps the experience of the original covenant has been preserved in her heart and gives hope that one can still mend the connection.

The concept of the covenant is absent from our daily speech and from professional discourse. Its absence prevents us from understanding various instances of human conduct, to which we then assign mistaken explanations. We say about people who remain in relationships in which their needs are not met that they are dependent, or that they fear independence or lack the courage to reveal what they want and to fulfill it. The reasons we have cited are sometimes correct – partially or completely. A piece of the covenant remains, and with it some of the hope.

The covenant we choose to enter into, based on the example of our ancestors in Genesis, presents an opportunity for new questions about human reality: With whom have I entered into a covenant? With whom do I still have a covenant today and what are its obligations? Does the man who wants me as a companion want a partner to a covenant? Does the woman who looks at me admiringly need me to fill a passing need, or does she see me as a partner to a covenant?