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Published on June 30th, 2011 | by Natan Margalit


Covenant: With a Little Help From my Friends

For years I tried to write a book, but I would start and stop and never finish. Reams of notes and outlines fill files, both digital and physical, cluttering the house with old thoughts. Yet, during college and graduate school I never had an incomplete. I wrote good papers and even published a few. And I wrote a whole dissertation, for goodness sake. But now that I was out of school I found I couldn’t finish a writing project to save my life. OK. Maybe I’m not a writer. Or, maybe I’m a writer under some circumstances and not under other circumstances.

A few months ago I started writing this blog, and it seems to be working. You, dear reader, are keeping me writing.  And my collaborators who volunteer their time for Organic Torah: Jeremy Sher, Penina Weinberg, and my wife, Ilana, all come in for the final editing process that turns raw material into a blog post. Am I a writer or not? By myself I’m not, but with a little help from my friends, I am.

I’ve always railed against the labelers who have said, “You Are” this or that, when I know myself to be capable of very different things depending upon how I’m connected to others. Yet, our culture subtly teaches that we all have an irreducible (and lonely) essential nature, and we thrive or decline on our own. This has not been my experience, and it doesn’t fit with the way nature works in general. I was recently on one of ecologist Tom Wessel’s famous “reading the forest” walks in which he transforms a simple walk in the woods into a deep reading of the relationships, human, biological and geological, that create the forest we see.  He pointed to a pine tree standing alone in a clearing, and noted that in fact trees almost never are truly alone. Their root systems are possibly intertwined with other trees. And if they are too far from other trees to be connected by roots, they are connected underground by a system of mycorrhizal fungi. We tend to think of these connections as extraneous, but, in fact they are essential.  Nothing in nature can survive on its own.

There is something very Jewish about this inter-connectedness. In fact, one of the most important ideas in Judaism is based on it: it’s called covenant. The underlying idea of covenant is that I can’t — no one can — do it all on my own.  Rabbi Harold Kushner put it well when he said, “What cannot be achieved in one lifetime will happen when one lifetime is joined to another.”  That is covenant.  Jews’ lives are bound to one another and to each generation of Jews in working towards the goal of a better world, a world, as we say, where God is One and God’s Name is One. There is something deep in Jewish consciousness that says none of us are complete and sufficient unto ourselves.

In fact, being incomplete is embraced as a part of being alive. Our deficiencies remind us that we need others, that we have desires. It is telling that Aviva Zornberg used the line from a Wallace Stevens poem “And not to have is the beginning of desire” in the title of her book: Genesis, The Beginning of Desire. The implication is that incompleteness, and therefore desire, is basic to all of Creation. She wasn’t the first to discover this. The Sages instituted a blessing after eating a snack: “Barukh Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam, Borei nefashot rabot ve’hesronam” . . . “Blessed is God who created many souls and their lacks.”  What kind of blessing is that?  It is a blessing that embraces our incompleteness, and the incompleteness that we have in common with all creatures. It says that our essential incompleteness is good because it gets us to desire, and when we desire, we bless God.

Jewish law and custom reveal a kind of suspicion of the complete, perfect whole. The mitzvah of pe’ah mandates that plowed fields are left un-harvested at the corners. And that the corners of the head (also, not coincidentally, called pe’ot) are left “unharvested” to grow out in long flowing side locks in traditional Jewish male hair style.  Houses are left with a small section of the wall bare and unpainted, as a reminder of our incompleteness, and our yearning for Jerusalem; and we end our weddings by breaking a glass.

I was recently at the Teva Seminar, a wonderful gathering for Jewish environmental educators.  We were talking about that blessing “borei nefashot rabot” mentioned above, and one of the Teva educators, Pesach Stadlin, mentioned something that I had never thought of before: HaTikvah, the Israeli National Anthem, is the only national anthem that is in a minor key!  For all that the early Zionists embraced the idea of a self-sufficient, invulnerable “New Jew” working the land of Israel, and rejected what they saw as the weak and vulnerable Diaspora Jew — they still chose a national anthem in a minor key.  HaTikvah speaks to our souls (in a way that often makes me cry) of the yearning for home, reminding us to embrace our yearning, rather than being fearful of our incompleteness.

So, I will call myself a writer, because, really, no one does it alone. And I’m happy to be a part of an ancient bond, a covenant that mirrors the world of nature: Whether it’s the Tree of Life, a tree in the forest, or a human being, we all need one another.

Next blog post I’ll talk about some ways that our contemporary culture is (finally) catching on to this idea.

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