Renewing America’s Covenant

Three hundred years ago, the Puritans departed from Europe on a journey to the promised land. They saw themselves as a new Israel, escaping an evil Pharaoh who had persecuted them mightily. Instead of crossing the Red Sea, they traversed the Atlantic Ocean and like Moses of old, their leader, John Winthrop, gave a powerful speech while on the precipice of entering the new land. This speech outlined the vision and values of their new community. Theirs was to be “a city upon a hill,” a model society that others would look to for inspiration and guidance. A community “knit together by this bond of love and live in the exercise of it,” with the goal “to improve our lives to do more service to the Lord.”[1]

The most important aspect of the speech for this new community was the Biblical idea that lay at its heart- the idea of covenant. Winthrop proclaimed that “if the Lord shall please to hear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath he ratified this covenant.” This new covenant bound them to God and to each other, and the consequences of breaking it would be clear to anyone with a familiarity of the Bible. For “the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us.” Winthrop ended his speech to with a well-known set of Biblical verses with his own interpretation woven in:

Beloved there is now set before us life and good, Death and evil, in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandments and his Ordinance and his laws, and the articles of our Covenant with him, that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may blesse us in the land whither we go to possess it. But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship and serve other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.[2]

The Puritans invocation of covenant may have been the first in American history, but it was certainly not the last. Again and again, Americans saw themselves through the story of the Hebrews. They were a people chosen by God, who had journeyed together for a better life in the Promised Land. They escaped the oppression of tyranny to found a new nation that would shine the light of freedom throughout the world.

The idea of covenant is not one we routinely encounter in our lives. On a simple level it is a form of contract in which two parties enter into a mutually beneficial agreement with each other through a set of mutual obligations. However, unlike contracts which are founded upon self-interest, covenants are guided by an orienting vision and a higher purpose that binds the parties to a shared destiny. If the covenant is broken, there are always consequences.

In the Bible, God makes two primary covenants: one with humanity and one with the Jewish people. However, covenants are not limited only to God. Human beings can make covenants as well. For example, Abraham is described as making a covenant with Avimelech about the shared management of the wells in the Land of Israel.[3]

The highest forms of covenants, however, are those like the Puritans, covenants based on love. The most significant example of this takes place between David, before he becomes king of Israel, and Jonathan, the son of King Saul. The two become extremely close sharing a deep and abiding affection for each other. In the words of the Bible, “Jonathan’s soul became bound up with the soul of David; Jonathan loved David as himself… Jonathan and David made a covenant… Jonathan took off the cloak and tunic he was wearing and gave them to David, together with his sword, bow, and belt.” (Samuel 1 18:1-3)  Covenant isn’t just a deal to be negotiated and signed. Rather, it binds the parties together in the deepest way imaginable.

America is covenantal in its very soul as is reflected in the national motto: E Pluribus Unum, Out of Many One. The idea of covenant is what guided the Founding Fathers and it is what serves as the foundation of America’s freedom.

In recent years, America’s covenant has almost completely unraveled. Political partisanship has reached outrageous levels. Party loyalty defines one’s identity far more than one’s gender, race, or religion and the toxic consequences of partisanship can be seen all around. We demonize those we disagree with, and we no longer feel bound to one another as citizens or even as human beings. Not only are we divided, but social and economic inequality has only increased. Instead of a politics of responsibility all we see today is a politics of resentment. Instead of seeking solutions that will benefit everyone, we assign blame, for America’s social, political, and economic problems are always someone else’s fault. We have even seen flashes of political violence, and we don’t yet know what is to come on the horizon.

There is a lot that America can learn from the covenant that the Jewish people entered into with God with three principles standing out above the rest. The first principle is that covenant obligates each one of us to another. This idea is the backbone of the halakhic principle- kol yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh, each Jew is mutually responsible for the other.[4] When we fight for Israel or on behalf of Jews suffering around the world, it is because of the covenant we share together. So too it is for America. We have to see ourselves as responsible for our fellow citizens. Their problems are our own and we must work together to solve them.

The second principle is that the covenant enables unity. When the Jewish are a unified whole, they are so much greater than the sum of our parts. The Midrash compares the covenant to a bundle of sticks. To break a single branch, all that is requires is to separate it from the pile and snap it. Even a child can do it. However, if the bundle is tied together and unified, it cannot be broken.[5] We know that America has always been strongest when it is unified. When common purpose binds it together, there is no obstacle that cannot be overcome.

The third principle of covenant is equality. All Jews stood before God when the covenant was made at Mount Sinai. The Midrash points out that the people were a diverse mix of elders and chiefs; woodcutters and water-drawers, but all of them were considered equal in the eyes of God. No single member of the covenantal community had a right to claim that they were better than the one standing next to them.[6]  The same must be true for America as well. Inequality strikes at the heart of the American covenant. If our fellow citizens lack the same opportunities that we receive, none of us are truly free.

It is these values of covenant- mutual responsibility, unity, and equality- that America must recover once again. They have been articulated time and time again throughout America’s history and it is essential to turn to them once more.

In the end, perhaps the most important thing we can recognize is not just the values and vision of the American covenant, but the fact that all covenants need renewal. They are never enacted just once and then left to last for all time. For a covenant to endure, those bound by it must commit to each other again and again. Without constant renewal, covenantal partners quickly forget the transcendent vision that inspired them in the first place. Each new generation must affirm the covenant and find a way to see it as their own.

We see this, in fact, with the original covenant that God made with the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. That same covenant is renewed by Moses forty years later as the Jewish people are preparing to enter into the Promised Land. Moses proclaims, “You stand today, all of you, before the Lord… – to enter into a covenant [with] your God.”[7] It’s not a coincidence that these verses are always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana, for on every Rosh Hashana, the Jewish people must reaffirm the covenant with God and with each other. The blowing of the shofar is an essential component of this. Its sound takes us back to Mount Sinai, to the very time and place when the covenant was first struck by our ancestors. Because we reaffirm the covenant on Rosh Hashana it is also a day of judgement, for covenants comes with consequences. It is a day when every Jew must evaluate their place within the covenant and ask whether they have done their part to uphold it.

To be in a covenant with God and to receive God’s blessing is not to receive special protection from the vicissitudes of life, but rather it is to be singled out for greater scrutiny. When the prophet Amos rebukes the Jewish people, he tells them in the name of God, “You alone have I chosen, of all the families of the earth- That is why I will call you to account, for all of your iniquities.”[8] Both the Jewish people and America believe that they have been chosen by God; that we have been blessed with a higher purpose in this world. However, this blessing comes with a price.

Everyone must do their apart. No more excuses. No more finger pointing. The only response that truly matters is the covenantal response Avraham offers God when he was called upon to make the greatest sacrifice. Hineni, Here I am. Here I am to take responsibility for the covenant of the Jewish people and the covenant of America.

Like the Jewish people, America has its own tradition of renewing the covenant. It’s not once a year, but rather once every four years, when a new president takes office. [9] A look at presidential inauguration speeches reveals one theme emerging over and over- the idea of covenant. A presidential inauguration is the opportunity to affirm the covenantal values of mutual responsibility, unity, and equality- the same values that inspired the Puritans to come to America centuries ago. No president said it better than Lyndon Baynes Johnson in 1965. Elected in a time of great turmoil, he knew that America faced difficult days ahead. Like Moses and John Winthrop on the precipice of the Promised Land, he called upon Americans to commit themselves to the American covenant once more. He implored them that:

Under this covenant of justice, liberty, and union we have become a nation- prosperous, great and mighty. And we have kept our freedom. But we have no promise from God that our greatness will endure… If we fail now then we will have forgotten in abundance what we learned in hardship; that democracy rests on faith, that freedom asks [for] more than it gives, and [that] the judgement of God is harshest on those who are most favored.

Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote that, “the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” In the years to come, let us all commit ourselves to doing just that.

[1] John Winthrop, A Model of Christian Charity, 1630. Can be found at https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/a-model-of-christian-charity-2/

[2] Deuteronomy 30:15-18

[3] Genesis 21:22-27

[4] Shavuot 39a

[5] Midrash Tanchuma, Netzavim 1

[6] Midrash Tanchuma, Netzavim 2

[7] Deuteronomy 29:9-11

[8] Amos 3:2

[9] This idea is developed by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in a series of places. Example can be found in The Home We Build and Future Tense.

About the Author
Rabbi Zachary Truboff is the coordinator of the International Beit Din Institute, which seeks to educate rabbis about halakhic solutions to difficult cases of gett abuse. His writings on contemporary Jewish thought and Zionism have appeared in the Lehrhaus, Arutz Sheva, and Akdamot. His forthcoming book, Torah Goes Forth From Zion: Essays on the Thought of Rav Kook and Rav Shagar, will be published in the fall. Before making aliyah, he served as the rabbi of Cedar Sinai Synagogue in Cleveland, Ohio. He has taught in a variety of adult education settings such as the Wexner Heritage Program and the Hartman Institute. He received semikha from Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.
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