Yesterday, I joined with a young family in our congregation as they celebrated the birth of their son. We gathered on the eighth day of his young life as they performed his Brit Milah – entering him into the covenant of the Jewish people.
It was an awesome and holy occasion. Through tears and emotion, with poetry and heartfelt words, they shared with him their hopes and dreams for his life. They told him about the people for whom he’s named, and imparted to him the elements of their spirits they want him to embrace. They shared with him the special gifts they know each member of their family will offer him as he grows. They offered their thanks to God for the gift of his life and the Jewish heritage that is now his sacred possession.
It’s remarkable that we become part of the Jewish people in our infancy. Only Jews-by-Choice make a conscious decision to join the Covenant of Israel. Most of us become Jews long before we have a conscious thought at all.
A covenant, Dr. Carol Ochs once taught, is an agreement to enter into a relationship, where you cannot fully appreciate the magnitude of what your commitment will mean, but knowing it will have the power to transform your life.
At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Moses returns to the Israelites with the corpus of law God commands us to follow to build a holy society. “Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that Adonai has spoken we will faithfully do.”
The Hebrew literally says: “Kol Asher Diber Adonai Na’aseh V’Nishma – All that God has spoken we will do and we will understand.” (Exodus 24:7)
This seems completely counter-intuitive. As people living in the west, we are taught first to understand and then to act from a place of understanding. “Know what you’re doing!” we are often admonished.
But the Israelites seem to declare the reverse: “We’ll know it when we do it.”
This is what makes the practice of Judaism such a powerful, mystical experience. It is through the performance of the Mitzvah – the Commandment, that we come to know the Mitzaveh – the Commander.
We cannot fully appreciate what it is to live a Jewish life until we endeavor to live a Jewish life. It doesn’t always make sense in advance. The power and meaning of a Jewish act is often only appreciated through the performance of the act itself.
Tonight we will celebrate the extraordinary gifts Rabbi Jessica Spitalnic Mates has given in her service as rabbi to Temple Beth El. For twenty years, Jessica has been a voice of steadfast conscience, unwavering love, and passionate devotion.
Throughout her career, Rabbi Mates has asked us to say with our ancestors “Na’aseh V’Nishmah – we will do and we will understand.” She knows, as they did, that we fully appreciate the power of our covenant with God and each other only when we make the leap of faith and commit to leading a Jewish life.
Year after year, Rabbi Mates has called us never to be complacent in our pursuit of kindness, sacred memory, growth and resilience. She has wrapped us in healing blankets, inspired us to remember the Holocaust by championing the rule of law, invited us to love the land and people of Israel, and pushed us to have each other’s backs.
For years, Rabbi Mates has implored us to understand that our individual lives as Jews make an invaluable contribution to the story of the Jewish people. We are, she has taught us, each of us, essential to the mission of our people. We may be just one Jew among millions, but we carry with us, in our every step, the fate and destiny of the whole Jewish world. The covenant is essential to us as Jews, but each of us as Jews are essential to the covenant.
As we celebrate the gifts of her long tenure, let us hearken to Rabbi Mates’ call to us – to renew our commitment to our living covenant, and in the Jewish lives we lead, build ever stronger relationships with each other and with God.
Rabbi Dan Levin
Temple Beth El of Boca Raton
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem…”