A renewal of vows at the new year

Rabbi Roxanne J.S. Shapiro is Rabbi-Educator at United Hebrew Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.

By Rabbi Roxanne J.S. Shapiro

Today, all of you are standing before the Eternal your God…in order to establish you this day as God’s people and in order to be your God…  I [God] make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day.  (D’varim 29:9-14)

These are powerful and inclusive words that we find in our Torah portion this week, but have we forgotten that a covenant was made at Sinai? That was the time when the people declared “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do!”  That was the time that they witnessed the thunder and the lighting…the blare of the horn… and the mountain smoking.  It was then that they made a covenant with God…to be God’s people so that the Eternal would be their god.

One might ask why there was a need to make a covenant again.  In a teaching from Shem Mi-Shmuel (author Samuel Bornstein), we find a comment from Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1813) that the making of a covenant between two lovers is not for the present, at a time when their affection and love is strong.  But, in the future, a covenant will be needed, when over the passage of time their love [perhaps better stated as “passion”] will be weakened.

So, too, for the Children of Israel, who after the Exodus were passionate and committed (albeit known for their kvetching), but over time and struggles, the love for God may have weakened.  Thus, the covenant was made again, at a time when they were about to cross over into the Promised Land, so that their love would endure.

We can easily interpret this for today thinking of couples renewing their vows after many years of marriage.  This is an opportunity for the couple to recall how their love has grown and to celebrate the present and future together.  They renew their covenant not to minimize the commitment made long ago, but to re-commit, refresh, and renew.

Within these days of preparation for Rosh HaShanah, let us consider how we can renew our own personal covenants – whether they are ones we have made with our spouse/partner, children, friends, employers/employees, etc.  These are each very personal and unique, but all depend on a mutual relationship of respect and communication.

This is also a time for each of us to consider our part in the covenant made with God.  The text of our portion clearly states that this covenant was made not only with those who were present, but those who were not [yet] present.  We can understand this to include each of us, too, who are here today.  The covenant may have been made before our “physical” time, but it was still made with and for us.  So while we may not remember the earlier covenants, we can renew our covenant with God now.  True, we may not physically experience the thunder and lighting and smoking mountain as our ancestors did at Sinai (or perhaps we were all there), nor will we stand with everyone as did before our ancestors before crossing over into the Promised Land.  But by renewing our covenant with God, we can reawaken our sense of connection to God and to our Jewish community.  Too often, we confront this relationship not by our action, but by a reaction to the cycle of life — moments of great joys or great sorrows in our life.  Let us, during the start of this new year, find the moments to renew our covenant with God by our own choice and our own action.  Let us consider our commitments to God and our religion, and consider what we can receive through that mutual relationship.

Shanah Tovah!