Every morning, my wife wakes me up with a cup of coffee. I know, I know, I’m pretty lucky. Actually, though, it’s in her interest to wake me up with some caffeine — I’m not exactly a morning person. My brain kind of idles in neutral for a while, slowly making its way into gear over the course of the morning. If I’m going to be any kind of useful before 10 a.m. it’s only by having a full cuppa by my side.
I sip my (first) cup of coffee while I nurse my kiddo and we wake up together. He’s not a morning person either. It’s a beautiful moment of intimacy that we have together each morning. He strokes my arm as he nurses, I stroke his back. We look at one another with love in our eyes. We don’t have a lot of moments like this anymore, now that he’s getting so big. Our days are full of activities — he plays with his babysitter, I try to meet deadlines — and spending time just reconnecting feels precious. We’ll repeat this ritual at the end of the day, too, before he gets into bed and snuggles up with a fire truck (for some reason) and his plushie fox, Shaul.
Lately, I’ve added an element to the ritual. As I stroke his back, I tell him, “I love this child. From the tippy-top of your head to the tippy-end of your toes, I love everything about you. I will always love everything about you.” It’s a promise I intend to keep, despite not knowing what the future holds. My heart is so full with love for this little person, and I want him to know that nothing and no one could ever change that. There are no conditions.
This week’s Torah portion also begins with a promise. “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water-drawer, to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God.” says Deuteronomy 29:9-11. This covenant, along with other vows that God makes to the Israelites, will end up being the basis of the entire Jewish faith and religion. So it kind of matters.
The word covenant feels weighty, like it should be said in a booming voice, but the truth is that it comes to us from Latin, through Old French, and the original word meant something like ‘to agree.’ It’s related to words like ‘convene,’ which has more to do with coming together. I imagine tribes coming together to arrive at an agreement about issues that pertain to the livelihood of their communities. Or world leaders convening at a summit to discuss pledges that they’ll make to one another. The truth is, though, that we convene all the time to make commitments to one another. I made a commitment to my wife just this morning that I’d take care of some logistical emails as we convened by the kitchen sink. Was that a covenant, too?
Maybe it would be, according to the original centuries-old definition, but words take new shapes as we imbue them with context and connotations. Words have weights.
The Hebrew for promise is havtacha, from the same root as the words secure and security. That makes sense — when we make a promise we’re creating a sense of security and trust that whatever we said would actually come to pass. The word for covenant (brit) has more complicated origins. It may have something to do with carving, since one way to mark the making of a covenant was to carve up animals in sacrifice. Either way, the words have weight; they are something to bear.
Today, at the playground, after I started writing these words and then stopped because life was happening, it occurred to me that there are some promises I won’t be able to keep. So many things are actually out of my hands. My toddler was climbing a jungle gym and had crouched in one of those tunnels. “Mama! Come!” he called. Before I could get over to him, though, a bigger kid who wanted to crawl by got in his face and said, “Could you move?”
My baby’s face crumpled.
I grabbed him and explained that other kids were playing in the tunnel right now and we’d find somewhere else to play, but he just burrowed into my shoulder, heart broken. He couldn’t believe that someone could be so mean.
To be clear, the bigger kid wasn’t being that awful. She was there first, and was playing with her friends, and my sweet one just doesn’t have very much practice reacting to other kids. What with being inside during a pandemic for most of his life and all.
Still, as I watched his face crumple I thought of that promise, that covenant I make with him every morning and every night, to love every part of him no matter what. Will it be enough, as the world inevitably breaks his heart throughout his life? What about when I promise never to let anything happen to him (which I did just the other night, in a thunderstorm)? Surely that’s a promise that won’t come to fruition. Am I wrong to make a promise I know I can’t keep.
The Lord’s covenant definitely comes with strings attached, as we’ve seen before and continue to see here. “All nations will ask, ‘Why did the Lord do this to this land? Wherefore that awful wrath?’” says Deuteronomy 29:23, going on to answer in the next verse, “They will be told, ‘Because they forsook the covenant that the Lord, God of their fathers, made with them when He freed them from the land of Egypt.’”
Maybe, by taking into account that promises are made to be broken, God is the more realistic of the two of us. I’m here making covenants and promises I either won’t be able to keep or may not be enough. God, on the other hand, has a backup plan.
I think, in the end, a compromise is the best (and only) way forward. I can’t focus on the heartbreak and hurt, so I’m going to keep being an idealist. I’ll keep promising love and protection to my little one. I’m going to love him so strong, with so much force that hopefully it’ll ward off the bad stuff. And even if heartbreak should come to pass, maybe that love itself will be the protection he needs to get him through. Maybe it will be enough. If sorrow is inevitable, well, so is joy.