Jewish Journal

God’s Covenant

Parshat Vaerah (Exodus 6:2-9:35)

by Rabbi Michael Gotlieb

Posted on Jan. 10, 2002 at 7:00 pm

From the Torah's beginning until its end, God is portrayed as being personally involved in the welfare of humanity. Deism is not a Jewish notion. God is not an "unmoved mover," the proverbial clockmaker who after assembling and winding his ware, steps back watching it tick down, never to again involve Himself with it. On the contrary, God hears our innermost thoughts, feels our deepest concerns, judges us and guides us through our lives. A traditional Jewish concept of God is one that is interactive and intimately personal.

This week's Torah portion, Vaerah, begins with God hearing, and ultimately reacting to, the Israelites brutal enslavement. "I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in slavery, and I have remembered My covenant." (Exodus 6:5) The covenant being remembered is between God and the Israelite people. Curiously, it was the king of Egypt, and not God, or the Israelites themselves, who coined the phrase, "Israelite People." Acting out of panic, Pharaoh wanted to do away with the Hebrews, when he declared they were becoming too numerous. (Exodus 1:9)

Even so, the distinction placed on our understanding of covenant is an important one. The covenant serves to bind God to an entire group, not to an individual, or a handful of individuals. "The God of Israel is no mythological deity who mingles freely with men in history," writes philosopher Rabbi Emil Fackenheim in his book, "God's Presence in History." "Nevertheless, not messengers, not angels, not intermediaries, but God himself acts in human history."

God hears the cries of the people Israel and responds. The plagues used to dislodge the Hebrew slaves are physical indicators of God's personal involvement. Admittedly, not all the Hebrew slaves were liberated from their miserable environment. Over the span of several hundred years, countless generations of Israelites were born and died while held captive by Pharaoh and his cohorts, never having experienced the beauty of life.

Collectively, we have survived as a people, and the covenant between God and us continues. While unimaginably large numbers of Jews have suffered and died throughout history, the Jewish People continue to thrive; the covenant remains intact. To those who are turned off to faith because of great personal, or even national loss, little can be said; out of respect, perhaps nothing ought to be said. After the Holocaust, for example, a number of Jewish theologians have felt the covenant was so compromised that it is no longer binding.

All that notwithstanding, the spiritual question most of us encounter is whether life is little more than a series of coincidences. To some, our existence is the outgrowth of luck, possibly karma, astrology or magic. To the Jew, our people's existence is the result of God, and the covenant we have with Him. No doubt, life is made more palatable because of it. And, if the message conveyed throughout the Torah is correct, all peoples, Jewish or not, are additionally blessed to have a God who is personally involved in the day-to-day affairs of their lives.

Michael Gotlieb is the rabbi of Kehillat Ma'arav in Santa Monica.

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