Context matters. Why someone says or does something is often clarified by what happened beforehand or by other factors that are in play. But there times when immediate context is less helpful. Some occasions call for vacating the intensity of the present to deflect our focus elsewhere.
This week in our portion of Moses retells of the Golden Calf sin. God was furious, rightly so. The People had defiled Sinai with blasphemous idolatry. Why does God forgive? Not because Moses refuses to give up on the people (Ex. 32:32). Not because destroying the People would actually damage God’s reputation (Deut. 9:28). But because of God’s faithfulness to covenant: “Remember,” Moses implores, “your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Deut. 9:27). Covenant is what brings God beyond the frustration of the immediate, to re-attach to larger, fundamental purposes.
Functionally, covenant serves as an anchor to the enduring that saves us from the choppy waters of the unmoored ephemeral. It enables the stillness of the eternal to melt away the rush of the urgent. When we are neck deep in a reality that is closing in on all sides, elevating to the first-principles of covenant helps us rebalance to the widest context, spanning the arc from history to destiny. In this way, the heat of the moment warms our attention to higher aims. As Americans, to the blessings of liberty. As Jews, to our Jewish vocation to generate goodness in the world.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel helped us personalize this lesson in the ways we remain loyal to our own life-defining moments. “The remembrance of that experience and the loyalty to the response of that moment are the forces that sustain our faith. In this sense,” conveys Heschel, “faith is faithfulness, loyalty to an event, loyalty to our response.”
As summer winds down and we reassess our priorities for the New Year, may the higher aims of covenant remind us of what’s at stake in being alive.