At the heart of the concept of covenant is a conundrum: Is God’s promise conditional or unconditional? On its face, the idea of covenant would imply that two parties mutually agree to perform certain acts. As the opening of this week’s parasha states, “If you walk in My laws and obey My statutes,” (Lev. 26:3) then “I will walk among you, and I will be God to you, and you will be a people to me” (26:12). Likewise, “If you do not listen to me, and do not do all these commandments” (26:14) then “I will scatter you among the nations” (26:33), and punish you severely. The agreement here is conditional: obey the commandments and be rewarded, disobey and be punished.

Yet if we go back to the original moment of Covenant-making with Abram, we find the situation is not quite so clear: “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates” (Gen. 15:18). While Rashi interprets this promise as conditional on the Israelites’ continued offering of sacrifices (as symbolized in the sacrifice Abram offers at this moment), Ramban reads it as an unconditional promise: “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, made the covenant that they would inherit the land in any case,” even if, for instance, the Canaanites repented (Ramban Gen. 15:7-8). In Ramban’s reading, God’s promise is unconditional: no matter what, this is your home.

This dialectic of conditional and unconditional comes through in God’s words in Bechukotai: “If they will confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors… then I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land… For their sake I will remember the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God. I am the Lord” (Lev. 26:40-45). God leaves an opening here, the opening of teshuva, of coming back home. The promise is conditional—you can only stay at home under certain conditions—but it is also unconditional: this will always be your home, whether you are there or not, and you can always come back.

This is one of the great conceptual contributions of the Jewish people, the idea that one can be at home but not be at home at the same time. We both feel at home and are compelled to reaffirm our sense of home, because home is not something static, something we can take for granted. It must be earned and renewed on a constant basis. This is an expression of the paradoxical reality that provides the taproot of Jewish life: the notion that we are at home and are strangers at the same time. “You were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This is the memory we are to carry with us all the time, even when we are at home in our own land. We are to be strangers, and yet be at home, at the same time.

Shabbat shalom.

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