Covenants feature prominently in the Torah and Judaism. A covenant is the highest form of contractual agreement, a binding promise of far-reaching importance in the relations between parties, with legal, religious, and social ramifications.
In addition to the agreement itself, covenants typically have a physical and public display of the sign or symbol to remember the promise, such as how the Torah deems rainbows to signify God’s promise not to flood the world again.
Judaism can directly trace its roots to God’s covenant with Avraham, the first Patriarch, and the initiation into the religion for Jewish males is called the Bris, literally, “covenant.”
As the exclusive rite of passage for formal admission into Judaism, it’s hard to overstate the central importance of Bris, so it’s worth understanding the covenant it invokes.
When God engaged Avraham to enter the covenant, God mapped out a vision for humanity, blessing Avraham’s descendants with greatness and the land of Israel. They just had to do one thing:
וַיֵּרָא ה אֶל-אַבְרָם, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי-אֵל שַׁדַּי–הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי, וֶהְיֵה תָמִים – Hashem appeared to Avraham, and said to him; “I am The Omnipotent…. Walk before me, and be perfect ”. (17:1)
Like it’s no big deal, the covenant requires us to be perfect. It doesn’t take much trying before you quickly realize that perfection is impossible. While perfection is a worthy objective, it is an inherently unattainable one, and any who claim to have found it are deluding themselves.
How can God ask us to do the impossible?
The question betrays the kind of defeatist thinking we are all prone to at times. Perfectionism can be paralyzing – if we can’t do it perfectly, then why try at all?
We should be very clear nothing and no one has ever been, currently is, nor will ever be perfect. Idealism can serve as a north star for direction, meaning, and purpose, but idealism alone is not an effective strategy for navigating day-to-day living, which necessitates some degree of flexibility and pragmatism.
We need to orient ourselves towards the process of perfecting, not the outcome of perfection, on the journey, not the destination. The Beis Halevi teaches that when we do our best, striving for better and more, we will find ourselves becoming more perfect over time – הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי / וֶהְיֵה תָמִים
The Gemara teaches that the name Hashem introduced Himself with, אֵל שַׁדַּי, expresses the concept that the Creator withdrew from creating so that life had space to be and grow – שאמר לעולמו די.
The Kedushas Levi notes that God forms this space for us to have any input by necessity because that input is precisely what God desires from us.
Rabbi Akiva taught that in the same way we consider a loaf of bread an improvement from raw stalks of wheat, humans can and must improve the world around us.
The Malbim explains that our active participation is the essential theme of the covenant. Circumcision is not just an extrinsic sign on our bodies; Judaism’s initiation for men symbolizes the action we are called upon to take to enhance our world, a living articulation of the covenant itself.
The symbolism of modifying our bodies as soon as we are born is a powerful visual metaphor we carry with us, teaching us that our everyday lives can elevate, refine, and improve the world around us.
You will never be perfect.
But the perfect is the enemy of the good.