I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of one of the great Jewish thinkers of our time, former Chief Rabbi of the UK Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l. He was an individual filled with knowledge, wisdom, and hope. Though I never had the honor of meeting him, I considered him a teacher and he has had an influence on my thinking. In honor of his memory and in the wake of the presidential election, I want to dedicate this blog to one of his great ideas that is as relevant as ever. I invite you to read and listen and consider deeply what Rabbi Sacks z”l is encouraging all of us to do at this critical moment.
What is the difference between a contract and a covenant? This moment in time requires us to examine that difference as a step in reclaiming the higher moral ground in our communities, country and abroad. We must not only understand, but teach this difference to our children in order to build a better future.
A contract is about interest, often self-interest, and has legal implications, while a covenant is an understanding, a pledge people make with one another. A social contract creates a state, and a social covenant creates a society. There are religious covenants as well, such as the covenant between God and the Jewish people – we are to follow his ways and he will give us Israel in return. It is intended to be a relationship of reciprocal love, caring, and loyalty. Individuals can enter covenants, as do two people in marriage. In rarer circumstances, countries can form covenants, such as the United States. While the covenant in the United States is certainly frayed, it is far from broken. In recent years, observing the growing fissures within the United States and other democratic societies provides insights on how to mend our fractured and angry society.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l wrote and spoke brilliantly on this subject. As he frequently pointed out, “Covenant societies are rare and they happen when a group of people decide they want to create a new kind of social order, to do which they pledge themselves to a set of ideals. That’s what Abraham Lincoln meant in the Gettysburg address, when he spoke of ‘a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal;’ and that’s what American presidents commit themselves to on their inauguration.” Our founding fathers intentionally modeled our new country on a covenantal relationship to create this new social order. The grand experiment, though challenged, continues to this day.
In his video, “The Politics of Hope,” Rabbi Sacks z”l explains the challenges that are facing our communities in these unsettled times, and that the Jews, a covenantal people, can lead the way in its repair. It is powerful and instructive. In memory of Rabbi Sacks z”l, I invite you to view his illustrated talk, “The Politics of Hope,” and to think about how we can be the changes we desire in our communities and in this great nation. As a parent, grandparent, and educator, I think about ways we can have conversations with our children about relationships and our roles in supporting our families, friends, and neighbors in the spirit in which covenantal relationships were intended. I hope you will join me in that endeavor.
I hope you find this brief, six minute video meaningful and thought-provoking.
May Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s z”l memory be for a blessing.