Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
Over the past few years, a series of articles have been published in papers like the Globe and Mail, The Independent and the Huffington Post about a new concept that some people consider an attractive alternative to traditional marriage: a marriage or relationship contract. There are various terms, ranging from 3-10 years, and some of them include a renewal clause whereas others would just end at the end of the term.
My first response was to laugh. Then I wanted to cry.
Generally speaking, a contract is transactional; it is about creating trust to benefit the various interests of the parties involved. So, for example, renters and landlords depend upon rental contracts or leases. These contracts, like so many others, are time limited and make guarantees to meet the interests of both the renter and the landlord. The landlord wants to know that the renter will pay rent at the mutually agreed upon rate, on time every month – and that the renter will not damage the apartment. The renter wants to know that the landlord will make the apartment available for the duration of the lease and will keep everything safe and in working order.
A marriage is not a contract: it is not transactional and should not entered into to create trust or protect interests.
Marriage is a covenant.
What is the difference between a contract and a covenant? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes:
“In a contract, two or more people come together, each pursuing their self-interest, to make a mutually advantageous exchange. In a covenant, two or more people, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of loyalty and trust to do together what neither can achieve alone. It isn’t an exchange; it’s a moral commitment … Contracts are about interests; covenants about identity. Contracts benefit; covenants transform. Contracts are about ‘Me’ and ‘You’; covenants are about ‘Us.’”
Contracts abound in modern Western democracies. Indeed, Sacks notes that the two central institutions of modern democracy are both contractual: commercial contracts create the market, while the state is a social contract. The market creates and distributes wealth, the state creates and distributes power.
Healthy societies, however, go beyond the transactional: they are also covenantal.
At Sinai, we received the Torah and became a nation. In a very real sense, Torah is the constitution of the Jewish people – it is the document which sanctifies our covenantal relationship with our Creator and with each other. That covenant was “ratified” in this week’s Torah portion when God gave the commandments from the top of the mountain; in that moment a mob of individual former slaves became the Jewish version of “We the people.”
“We the people” is a powerful, transformational concept, and the founding fathers channeled Sinai when they first penned those words. In a very real sense, the United States Constitution is the Torah of the American people. It is about more than the distribution of wealth and power, it is a covenantal document. Just look at the text of the preamble:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The constitution is not about transactions, but about our mutual commitment for the greater good – and it is most definitely not time-bound.
Thinking in terms of covenants is important because when we have a disagreement on a transactional level, we can just walk away from the relationship. We cannot, however, abandon our covenantal commitments without causing greater harm to ourselves and others. Our covenantal commitments are the best way to hold our local communities, our national societies, and our global network together and to build a better shared future. No matter how polarized our politics, no matter how frustrated or angry we get, covenant reminds us that we can never achieve alone what we can create together; it reminds us that we must commit to stay in this together, arguments and all – or we will all lose.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras