The word “Covenant” (Brit) appears in over 200 places in the Tanach. It is used to describe a relationship between God and human beings as well as to indicate political alliance or cooperation between people or nations. Today the word generally refers to the special relationship between God and the Jewish people.
There are three notable Covenants in the Torah: The Covenant of Noah, whose sign is the rainbow; the Covenant of Abraham, whose sign is Circumcision ( Mila) and the Covenant of Moses, whose sign are the words of Torah engraved in the tablets concluding the incident of the Golden Calf.
In our Parshah (Noah ) the Covenant immediately follows upon God’s promise to no longer curse the ground because of people, because “The inclination of a man’s heart is evil from his youth.” These words are not so different than God’s pre-flood pronouncement condemning man’s evil inclination, yet this time God is swayed by Naoh’s savory sacrifice, and rather than destroying all of creation he decides to legislate for it. Laws of nature now govern the world: seeds sown will now yield regularly, summer and winter, cold and heat now follow regular seasons, and even night and day will follow from each other. Furthermore, precepts are introduced, called by the Sages “seven commandments of the Children of Noah” that established the universal ethical norms that are familiar to us today. The sign of this Covenant is the rainbow, which is often also viewed as a symbol of hope.
Through some very imaginative Midrashim our Sages stressed the complete otherness of the world prior to Noah. In the antediluvian world, half-human spirits, devils, and Liliths engendered by the accursed Adam and Eve, roamed the earth. Still other creatures, the sons of giants ( bnai anakim) , could sow their fields once and yield enough for forty years, walk the earth from end to end in one hour, and relate to ferocious lions and leopards as if they were tapeworms. >From this perspective, the Covenant represented, both from divine and human natures, a complete break with pre-existing nature, and ushered in a new state of existence. The newly established course of nature was to be inviolable. From now on, humankind’s punishment for its infractions would not be the cursing of the ground or the utter destruction of the world by an angry God, but the suffering it would bring on itself by attempting to act in opposition to the natural and ethical orders.
The medieval commentator Nachmanides pointed out the one-way aspect of the Noahide Covenant. Its existence was revealed to people only after Moses wrote it down long afterward in the Torah. In Noah’s time God acted completely alone, as at the creation, and the act of legislation is comparable to the Kabblistic concept of creation as Tsimtsum. God as creator reduced the scope of his overwhelming presence to make room for creation. Similarly, through the Covenant that followed the flood, God as ruler unilaterally limited his imminent power by introducing laws for governing the world.
The Covenant understood as an act establishing sovereignty according to the rule of law was used in developing the theory of the modern State. According to Dr. Daniel Elazar (z”l), the Biblical concept of Covenant was adopted by the political philosophers Hobbes and Locke in the 17th Century in order to provide the intellectual and ethical basis of the modern liberal-democratic state. And moreover,
“The covenants of the Bible are the founding covenants of Western civilization. Perforce, they have to do with God. They have their beginnings in the need to establish clear and binding relationships between God and humans and among humans, relationships which must be understood as being political far more than theological in character, designed to establish lines of authority, distributions of power, bodies politic, and systems of law”.
The Covenant of Noah depicted a transition from a state of nature in which human beings have no protection from each other, from nature or from the ultimate wrath of God in the form of a flood, to a new “political” state in which humankind can progress and achieve well-being. The idea of the State as being based on a covenant or a “social contract” as it is better known, is perhaps one of the most significant ideas in the history of political thought.
The theorists of Zionism often espoused utopian socialist and religious-messianic ideologies, but practical statesmanship won the day. The Jewish state was established as a liberal-democratic regime. The founders, Ben Gurion and others, understood that despite the rhetoric of their political platforms, a Jewish state would prosper if it was founded upon the rule of law, the will of the majority, an independent judiciary, basic rights of all its citizens and respect for private property. We may argue and express our skepticism concerning the extent to which these principles are upheld throughout the system, but it should not be doubted that the remarkable growth of Israeli against all odds, is manifest in their day-to-day application.
Yet there are notable failures. We were returned to the pre–Covenantal state of nature in 1995 by the murderer Yigal Amir and those who sympathized with his despicable act. Their warped interpretation of God’s Biblical Covenant with Israel caused tremendous damage to the State of Israel and to the social contract on which it was founded.
At this time of year, 12 years later, it is still very necessary for Israeli society to soberly reflect on the challenges of continuing to build and sustain democratic institutions within a Jewish state. In a liberal democracy, those who attack either the civil rights of minorities or the will of the majority can be deterred from destroying the state only through the vigilant enforcement of laws and by consistent public censure.
Returning to the Biblical concept, the Haftarah this week for Parshat Noah from Isaiah Ch. 54 connects the immutable Covenant of Noah to the eternal Covenant between God and Israel:
As I swore that the waters of Noah nevermore would flood the earth,
So I swear that I will not be angry with you or rebuke you.
For the mountains may move and the hills be shaken,
But my loyalty shall never move from you, nor My covenant of friendship be shaken.
In other words, through destruction, exile and persecution, God’s Covenant with the People of Israel, like God’s Covenant with the Children of Noah, remains unconditional, eternal and inviolable.
On the anniversary of the Rabin assassination we need to recall that our collective mission and challenge as a People is to live up to the dual challenge of building a Jewish state in fulfillment of God’s eternal promise to the Jewish people, and sustaining it in accord with the liberal-democratic principles for which God’s Biblical Covenants are a model.
Eitan Cooper is Vice President for Development at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.
Image: Noah’s Sacrifice, Daniel Maclise.