Covenant in a new light

If God provides everything in a covenant with us and wants only our gratitude and love in return, why are there so many commandments? It started with ten given to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exod. 20:1-17), and before you can say “your will be done,” those ten begat 603 more. Six hundred thirteen commands to obey – and more would follow – so we can hold up our end of the covenant! How can anyone observe all those commands?

No one was more confident of doing it than St. Paul, a Pharisee righteous without blame according to the law (Phil. 3:4-6). But he knew his limitations. “I can will what is right,” he wrote, “but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom 7:18b-19). No one made a better attempt to obey the law than Paul, and even he fell short.

God must have known we’d fail to keep all those commandments. Did God set us up for failure, or does our way of looking at the commandments miss the mark? According to author Dan Brown, “Sometimes all it takes is a tiny shift of perspective to see something familiar in a totally new light.” Maybe it would help to look at those 613 commandments from a different perspective. Let’s start with the first ten.

In virtually every Christian list, the first of the Ten Commandments is, “You shall have no other gods before me.” But if we shift our perspective slightly and look at them from a Jewish perspective, we see something different. And for me, that difference opens up a world of new possibilities. But first, a little word study.

The word for “commandment” in Hebrew is “mitzvah,” usually referring to a good deed done from religious duty. In Jewish tradition, each November a day is set aside, called Mitzvah Day International, when community groups and individuals undertake a range of volunteer projects for those in need in their local community. The aim is to encourage people to give their time, rather than their money, to worthwhile local causes while also creating deeper linkages within communities.

That last part, creating deeper linkages within communities, is what helped me see God’s commandments differently, because the word “mitzvah” often has an additional meaning, “to attach or join.” A mitzvah unites the person who is commanded with the one who commands, cementing a relationship, an essential bond. A mitzvah or good deed is something God wants done with God’s creation, and by doing what God wants done, we’re bound up with God in body, mind, and soul. So a commandment is not about simply doing what we’re ordered to do; it’s about doing something that completes our relationship with God, that draws us into a deeper, more fulfilling union with God.

Now, back to the Ten Commandments. For Jews, “You shall have no other gods before me” is the second commandment. The first is, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The first commandment is not a command for us; it’s God’s statement of who God is and will be under the covenant – our God – and a reminder of what God has done for us, of the radical freedom God has given us. The other nine, and the 603 that follow, simply shape a life of gratitude, a life poured out in grateful response to the good news of the first commandment, “I am the Lord your God.”

The commandments in fact didn’t stop at number 613. Over the years, the rabbis added others: for example, lighting Shabbat candles, reciting a blessing before eating, and celebrating Chanukah. The rabbis of the Talmud even say that rabbinical commands are more precious to God than God’s own explicit commands. The deepest expressions of God’s will are those actions which God did not explicitly command but which Jewish communities developed through study and celebration of the Torah – not the laws written on tablets of stone or in scripture but laws written on the human heart (Jer. 31:31-34).

So when St. Paul tells us, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13), Paul is continuing the best of his own Jewish tradition. Work out your own salvation, create your own commands, your own mitzvot, to shape your life in gratitude to the One who is your God and always will be. Every succeeding generation must give authentic and original shape to its own life of gratitude.

Whenever any monastic order – the Benedictines, the Franciscans, the Carthusians, the Sisters of Charity, the Poor Clares – creates a rule for living in community, they’re shaping a life of gratitude, creating new commandments in response to God’s first commandment, “I am the Lord your God.” They’re giving concrete expression to their covenant relationship with our creator.

That’s what Jesus did. “I give you a new commandment,” he said, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). He commanded love as the rule for shaping a life of gratitude in covenant with God. To hold up our end of that covenant, we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and we love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31).

That’s not something we do; it’s something that shapes our whole life, something we are. God’s covenant with us is a covenant with every other person and with all of nature besides, and if we are to faithfully embody that covenant with God, we must also embody it in our relationships with our neighbors and with our natural environment.

How does gratitude to God shape your life, your relationships with others, your relationship with the creation that surrounds and supports you? If, like St. Benedict, for example, you were to write a personal rule for living, what commands, what mitzvot, would it include? St. Paul pleaded with the Romans to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). How might gratitude to God transform your way of living in the world?

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