The Berit PrincipleApril 30, 2012 - 5:00 am
“When all the elders of Israel had come to King David at Hebron, he made a compact with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel, as the Lord had promised through Samuel.” — 1 Chronicles 11:3
“What’s in it for me?”
The ubiquity of self-interest within daily life can be glimpsed at home – “why should I wash a dish that I didn’t even use?” – at the office – “why should I cover for someone else, just because he’s sick?” – and even in a religious setting – “why should I greet a new face in the congregation? No one ever greeted me when I moved in!”
We’ve all heard some variation on this theme, and in a sense, it’s not surprising. Would we, ourselves, slogging through a busy work schedule as it is, expend extra energy accomplishing a task, the outcome of which will have no measurable impact on our quality of life?
How strange is it, then, to read 1 Chronicles’ account (paralleled in 2 Samuel) of David’s ascension to the throne of Israel? The chronicler informs us that after the entire Israelite leadership had expressed its collective desire to see David anointed king, David took the initiative in establishing his rule upon a constitutional foundation via a covenant, or in Hebrew, a berit.
In other words, although David possessed overwhelming popular support and could have enthroned himself as a dictator – a ruler unimpeded by official limits – David chose, willingly, to establish a berit between himself and his people, ensuring that his rule would be just. Although David himself gained nothing from this berit, he knew that it would greatly benefit his brethren, and he acted accordingly.
The most basic component of personhood for Jewish males is the berit milah (circumcision). Although every Jewish male must be circumcised, it is noteworthy that, as the great thinker and jurist Maimonides teaches the responsibility to undergo circumcision falls only secondarily upon the person himself.
Instead, the primary command to circumcise a child falls upon the child’s father. Although the father receives no personal reward for providing for his child’s berit, he nonetheless remains instrumental in performing for his child the kindness of ensuring his eternal place within the Jewish ancestral tradition. Indeed, in Jewish thought, the very idea of a berit, in any context, expresses the praiseworthy notion of selflessness.
In our own lives, let us recommit to the principle of “berit” – of selfless devotion to family, friends, strangers, and most of all, God.