Consideration – Yom Kippur 5759 (1998)

In today’s Torah portion, we read:

You are standing today, all of you, before your God … in order to establish you today as a people to Him and He to be a God to you… Not with you alone do I seal this covenant and these sanctions, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before our God, and with those who are not with us this day.

As we enter this final day of the Days of Awe, the Day of Atonement, it is our task to renew this, our covenant with God: to re-commit ourselves to justice, prayer and righteous living.

When we think of our covenant with God, we often think of what it means for us: what we must do, what the consequences of our actions — or our inaction — will be, what privileges and responsibilities we have as Jews.

That, however, is a very one-sided view of any covenant, or contract. By definition, a contract requires that each party receive “consideration” — something of value given by each to the other. From our perspective as Jews, our “consideration” is clear: the blessings that God promises if we live up to our end. But what is God’s “consideration”?

What is it that God gets out of this contract? The right to call this stiff-necked, argumentative, rebellious people “special”? It hardly seems worth the deal — as Jews, we get a lot out of it: God promises to look after us, to reward us when we are good and punish us when we are not, to hold us to a higher standard. What’s in it for God?

First, let’s consider who the contract is between. We know God is one party, but who is the other? Was it with Moses? Is it all of us, individually? Deuteronomy tells us it is with “those who are standing here this day, and with those who are not here with us this day.” So clearly it is with Jews, past, present and future, but there is another important phrase: “in order to establish you today as a people.”

With us, not as individuals, but as a people. I believe this is an important distinction, both for us and for God. For us, because it helps me understand something about suffering in the world. And for God, because I believe it illuminates our value to God. So what is this distinction between us as a collection of individuals and us as a people?

I am a “cybernetician;” as such, I look at groups of things that function with a common goal — systems — as being “things” in themselves, not just collections of individuals. How is a system a real thing, and not just an abstract construct? Consider the human body.

Our bodies are collections of units — cells — that are part of the system which we know as a person, which we all think is as real as any individual cell. Each of these cells in its own way is working towards a larger, common goal — the preservation of the person. Different kinds of cells do different jobs, and sometimes they don’t always function as they’re supposed to, but in general, they work pretty well. Even though we’re really just a collection of individual cells, most of us would agree that, as systems, people are greater than the sum of their parts: more than just electrochemical firings and sacks of water.

This is a fairly easy system to see; let me give you one other example: families.

Families are collections of units — people — that work more or less together for the continuation of the larger system. Of course, what that larger system is is not always as easy to define, but it’s there. Sometimes you see it best when it’s not functioning smoothly, as I did in my first career as a family therapist.

I quickly learned as a therapist that there were many successful “solutions” to family problems, and that the best were those the family arrived at themselves. So, my main challenge was to “stir up the pot” for families that were stuck on some issue, and support them long enough to find a solution that worked for them. After all, they knew better than I what the limits of their family were, and what would work best for them.

So here we have two examples of systems: our bodies and families, each a system made up of components that are greater than the sum of their parts. As systems, each has a goal they work towards, some internal rules for managing their progress towards that goal, and the ability to learn and adapt to unforeseen circumstances.

What does this have to do with our covenant with God?

Consider the system of Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people. As a system, we should — and can — be greater than the sum of our individual parts; we should — and can — have a sense of identity; we should — and can — have a system of rules or laws that guide us in our behavior; we should — and can — be able to learn from experience; and, finally, we should — and can — be oriented toward the future. All of these are true for us. We even have codified our rules in the Torah — in its most complete sense, not just the Pentateuch — and it continues to evolve along with us and help reflect and shape our identity.

The Torah is the living document that reflects the living covenant between us and God. A living contract — that which binds us together, and from which each derives benefit. So, back to the original question: what does God get out of it?

From a systems perspective, it seems that in Klal Yisrael God gets a living, breathing, diverse, constantly-evolving assistant to help with that much larger, more complex system: humanity. That’s not to say that we Jews run the world, or have any destiny to; it’s not to say that our rules are the only ones, that our covenant is the only one. But it is to say that we have an important role to play in the world: we are assistants who help make certain that the creation and repair of the world continues.

What is more, it’s clear that we are expected to improvise, to learn and grow, to discover new ways of living from the rich fabric presented to us throughout the Torah. This is because, like the family systems, there is no one correct way of improving the world — God trusts us to come up with our own, unique solutions that will be all the more effective and enduring because they are our own. As we read elsewhere in today’s portion:

For this [Law] … is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in heaven, … nor is it across the sea … Rather, [it] is … in your mouth and in your heart — to perform it.

So what does God get out of the deal? A partner who can help work out the details; a trusted assistant to help maintain the world’s equilibrium through our efforts, our energy, and our sacrifice. A partner who, like God, will be unpredictable in our methods and our results, while God stirs the pot from time to time. A stirring of the pot that creates unpredictable challenges, and unforeseen outcomes: sometimes wonderful, sometimes painful, most often a little of both.

We live up to our contract with God when we view ourselves not as individuals, not as independent cells in the body of humanity, but part of a system — Klal Yisrael — that lives with a shared identity, an organic set of laws amidst a common purpose, always oriented toward a better future.

On this Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement, when all our sins with others are reconciled, and we turn to God for forgiveness, let us consider those times when we have not functioned as part of God’s system to support each other, to repair the world, to act as part of God’s agent for change and growth, but have instead acted selfishly, for our own merit alone.

And considering those moments, let us then reaffirm our contract with God, as members of Klal Yisrael, we who are given unique burdens and blessings. Let us reaffirm not only our intent to do our best at upholding that contract for our own “consideration,” but for God’s — and the world’s.

© 1998-2007 James F. Brulé