In honor of the first yortzeit of Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz, z''l, I've planned three sermons focusing on the three main relationships he outlines as essential to faithful Jewish life today. The second of the three focuses on our covenant with God.
Covenant with God
עֲלֵה אֵלַי הָהָרָה וֶהְיֵה שָׁם.
Come up to me,
Come up to me on the mountain
And be there.
And be there.
Then God said to Moses, “Come up to the Eternal, with Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy elders of Israel, and bow low from afar. …
Then Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; and they saw the God of Israel: under God’s feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Yet God did not raise a hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank.
The Eternal said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and be there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings and commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them.” …
Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
Last week, at the revelation at Mount Sinai, the Israelites heard God’s voice. This week, Moses and the priests and the elders of Israel see God’s form and eat and drink. And next week, we begin to read of the construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary designed that so God may dwell among the people. The message seems to be crystal clear: God can encounter us in physical form, manifesting immensely and powerfully.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God is depicted as a person who can appear before human beings in more or less human form. God has emotions and desires, and God even makes mistakes. In many ways, the God of Israel seems no different from the colorful gods of ancient Greek or Egyptian mythology.
But the Jewish view of God is not restricted to the Hebrew Bible alone. Indeed, Judaism grows out of but remains distinct from the religion of our biblical ancestors. The Judaism of today—like the Judaism of the past two thousand years—is defined by the rabbinic process of interpreting Torah. And for the Rabbis, contrary to the plain sense of Tanach, God most definitely does not have a physical form. As the rabbinic philosopher Saadia Gaon wrote in 933, “It is out of the question and impossible to declare [the Creator] to be anything that he has himself created” (Book of Beliefs and Opinions). For over a thousand years, our tradition has struggled to explain the true meaning behind the biblical descriptions of God that don’t make any rational sense.
I offer tonight a few reflections on this age-old endeavor. This is the second in a series of three sermons that sketch some of the main elements of faithful Jewish life in today’s world. These sermons draw on the teachings of Rabbi Doctor Eugene Borowitz, zichrono livracha. Dr. Borowitz, whose first yortzeit we recently marked, was my teacher at seminary and was among the most significant Jewish philosophers of the past fifty years.
Dr. Borowitz called his philosophy “covenantal theology.” In short, Borowitz sees faithful Jews today as engaged in three significant relationships: a covenant with one’s self, a covenant with God, and a covenant with Jews of the past, present, and future. Three weeks ago, I spoke about our covenant with Jews of the past, present, and future; this week’s Torah portion, as you’ve probably guessed, highlights the covenant with God. Each of these sermons is, of course, just the tip of an iceberg, though I hope to uncover some avenues for deeper exploration.
Eugene Borowitz framed his post-modern Jewish theology around the concept of covenant, which is a two-way relationship entailing mutual obligation. The covenant with God, Borowitz teaches, is more important to Jewish life today than any particular notion of who or what God is. Accordingly, he proposes that any idea that “mandates and motivates a rich and intimate relationship with God” is, as it were, kosher.
This is because throughout all of Jewish history, our people have both responded to the divine and sought response from the divine. Whether conceiving of God as a person, a being, a force, or a process, Jews throughout the ages have experienced on some level a sense of relationship with God.
Sometimes, this relationship has been one of connection, a feeling of closeness and trust. The Psalmist rejoices קָרוֹב יְיָ לְכָל-קֹרְאָיו, “Adonai is near to all who cry to out to God” (Ps. 145:18). Or as the Hasidic Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk taught: “God is where you let God in.”
But sometimes, this relationship is one of palpable absence, of yearning for a comfort never felt. As the Psalmist says elsewhere, עַד-אָנָה יְיָ תִּשְׁכָּחֵנִי נֶצַח, “How long, O God? Shall You forget me forever? How long will you hide Your face from me?” (Ps. 13:2). Surely ours is not the first generation to doubt the presence or power of God.
Through times of both confidence and despair, the covenant remains intact. We may love God, hate God, doubt God, or praise God – but we are always in relationship with God. And on account of this relationship, we bear the responsibility to always continue our search for truth and goodness and to manifest those virtues in the world. Faithful Jews in today’s world cannot walk away from all notions of divinity, for such ideals establish basic foundations of right and wrong and create frameworks for perceiving and receiving holiness in our lives.
This covenant is both a burden and a privilege. A sincere and faithful Judaism cannot relegate itself solely to areas of culture and politics, friendship and family; it must also spur us continually to look outside ourselves to find the source of meaning in our lives and the world. This search is a struggle; that’s why we’re called Yisrael – those who wrestle with God. And never has the struggle been harder than in our modern society, which is saturated in science and enthralled by a system of reason that has no room for God.
The poet Julie Sugar captures this struggle beautifully in her adaptation of Psalm 22, which originally begins “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” Her contemporary translation captures and reframes that sentiment.
You are so far away, God.
I try to call you but my words are tinny, tiny.
Why have you gone?
I cry at my desk all day,
get no sleep at night,
and still, God, you do not answer.
You do not catch me when I fall.
Still I know that you are holy.
The children of Israel enthroned you.
In you my ancestors trusted:
they trusted you and you delivered them.
They cried to you and you rescued them.
There was no shame in this--
only trust that you would save.
But I am not them, and these are different days.
People see my tears, and wag their heads.
“She trusts in God,” they mouth.
“Let God deliver her!” they say,
“Let God rescue her, since she delights in God!”
Yet I know:
you are the one who took me from the womb.
You made me trust you.
You put me at my mother’s breast.
From my birth was I cast on you,
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
So please, be not far from me,
for trouble is near,
and there is none to help.
Being in covenant with God can be painful and impossible to understand. Yet through it we hope to withstand suffering; and through a power emanating from beyond our small and private worlds, we seek to direct our hearts and our hands to leading lives of purpose.
In the midst of Moses’ encounter with God in this week’s Torah portion, we read:
וַיִּקַּח֙ סֵ֣פֶר הַבְּרִ֔ית וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּאָזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם. וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ, כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְיָ, נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע׃
Then [Moses] took the book of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do and we will understand” (Ex. 24:7).
First we will do – only then can we find understanding. So it is with God. We must first open ourselves to relationship with God, whatever that might mean. Only then can we discover particular insight or intuition about what God means to us. And all the while, we strive to lead our lives in service of justice and integrity even as we struggle to understand how and why our tradition calls us to do so.
Judaism has never sought to define God, but it has always challenged us to imagine a world with God in it. This ultimately is the mission of Jewish tradition, to envision a world of holiness and peace and to work to make that vision a reality.
And this is the singular message of the Aleinu, an integral component of every Jewish service. This prayer expresses our hope לְתַקֵּן עוֹלָם בְּמַלְכוּת שַׁדַּי, “to repair the world with the power [and presence] of the nurturing God.” This responsibility is our response to God’s call.
And so, in service of the covenant we share with our Creator, let us rise as we continue on page 282 responding together with the words of the Aleinu.
 Exodus 24:12.
 Exodus 24:1, 9-12, 18.
 Renewing the Covenant (1991) p. 60.
 Raz, S., and Levin, E. The Sayings of Menahem Mendel of Kotsk. Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1995, p. 10. Cf. Martin Buber’s The Way of Man, 2012 (available in e-reader format only), last page.
 In Lilith, Summer 2013, p. 30.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”