The Jewish faith places a certain emphasis on duty and obligation. It’s at the heart of the way the Torah writes God: the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah go by, are discussed in terms of righteousness and obedience, of knowledge and ignorance. But it’s not until the story of Abraham that any Jews actually come into the narrative: the first Jew is Abraham, because God comes to him and says, “I am going to make a covenant with you.”
The word covenant means agreement; it carries the connotation of contract, of alliance, of bargain. The Jewish people’s bargain is this: they will be God’s people, and in return, God will be their god. God will give them a way of life, and in return, they will live it; they will choose God, and in return, God will choose them.
As I’ve said, I don’t believe in God, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in Judaism. In this case, what that means is that I believe in bargains. I believe in debts. I believe that law is not just rules for rules’ sake; instead, law is duty, obligation, an action you owe to another person in exchange for what they have done for you. Duty is a debt to be repaid.
For that reason I think about this photo:
This is from Sarajevo, in 1941. The woman in the center, Rivka Kavilio, is Jewish; the two girls behind her are her children. Under the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia, like in every other country the Axis occupied, Jews were forced to wear yellow stars sewn into our clothing. Rivka Kavilio, in particular, had her home destroyed.
The woman on the right, Zejneba Hardaga, is Muslim; she had taken the Kavilios in, and they were staying at her home. She’s using her veil to cover Rivka’s yellow star. Later, she was named Righteous Among the Nations.
I think also about the Marquis de Lafayette, who came to America to aid the revolutionary troops during the Revolutionary War. He was very young at the time; his king disapproved, his father-in-law disapproved, and he stood to lose his familial connections and his wealth if he fought with the revolutionaries. Nevertheless he came to America, and fought, and commanded battalions, and won battles for Americans, in America’s name.
In World War I, as American troops landed in France to relieve the French military on the Western Front, an American general said: “Lafayette, we are here!”
Over the past weeks, I’ve become tired. Not the sort that can be fixed by a good night’s sleep, or even a vacation; bone-tired, blood-tired. Lord Byron says: the sword outwears the sheath, and the soul outwears the breast, and the heart must pause to breathe, and love itself must rest.
It’s hard for me to do what I have done for twenty-one years, which is feel so deeply that it cuts through everything else, feel so deeply that I have to speak or shout or sing or write or I will surely die, feel so deeply that it sweeps me up and sweeps those around me up in a flurry of action. Never before in my life have I thought that the heart must pause to breathe; I have always believed my heart could no more grow tired from feeling than it could grow tired from beating.
Nevertheless I’ve become tired. I know this is the intention, I know that the plan is for me and people like me to become tired. I know that love itself cannot rest for even a moment, that for love to rest could mean it would not return to life, that the war might be lost for good. I know these things, and I do not become less tired because of them.
I think of duty, though. I think of obligation; I think of covenants.
Duty does not grow tired of being done; debts do not grow tired of being repaid. Duty does not require your heart, or your mind – it only requires your action. Duty does not take from you; instead, it gives you joy in the doing, it gives you joy when it is done. There is joy in repaying a debt – not because the debt is erased, but because the debt becomes greater, becomes a covenant, becomes something holy, becomes something which defines you.
The American general said, Lafayette, we are here. It meant bargain; it meant contract; it meant alliance.