We live in a consumer society, one in which the acquisition of goods, products and status is often seen not as a means to an end but an end to itself. One of our great philosophers, the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, once lightly put it this way: “The consumer society was laid down by the late Steve Jobs coming down the mountain with two tablets, iPad 1 and iPad 2, and the result is that we now have a culture of iPod, iPhone, iTunes, i, i, i.”
This focus on the “I” fosters a very individualistic, egocentric culture in which one is constantly reminded by product placements and commercialism of all that one does not have instead of being thankful for what one does have. The result is obvious, as Rabbi Sacks writes: “Through constant creation of dissatisfaction, the consumer society is in fact a highly sophisticated mechanism for the production and distribution of unhappiness.”
But there is another model of life which is not based on the consumer but the covenant. The concept of a covenant was first introduced by God to Noah and all the descendants of the world, and then afterward was said specifically to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their children, the Jewish people. In this worldview, one’s goals, life decisions and very sense of self are thought of in a whole different context.
The consumer focuses on the “I” and what is missing from life, creating a mechanism for fundamental unhappiness by driving one to fill that hole through buying more material goods.
By illustration, I will share a story that recently happened to me that highlights one aspect of this covenantal perspective.
Eight months ago, my father passed away. My father was an important and loving presence in my life. While over the past number of years he lost some of his strength and vitality, his passing was still unexpected and difficult. During this challenging time, I turned to my faith tradition for support. Judaism provides a series of laws and customs that enable the mourner to integrate the new reality of loss into one’s life. One of the customs of mourning is for the mourner to recite a prayer every day, three times a day, during our daily prayers, which publicly sanctifies God’s name. One of the requirements of this prayer, called Kaddish, is that it can only be said in a prayer service with a quorum of 10. Now this is not difficult when I, for example, am in Yeshiva University, where there are prayer quorums running throughout the day, but when I travel, it becomes more of a challenge.
So here is my story. I was visiting a group of Yeshiva University students who were on a trip to Marrakesh and my travel plans had me first flying into Casablanca. Knowing I would fly in too late to catch the community’s evening services, my office contacted a parent of one of our students from the local community and asked him for his advice. No problem, he said, just come to the synagogue whenever you arrive. My flight was a little delayed. I took a taxi from the airport and got there after 10 p.m. Meeting me at the synagogue was the parent with eight other men who I never previously met, but who came to pray at evening services with me to commemorate my father’s memory. In addition, they were concerned that I might be hungry after my trip, so they arranged a four-course catered dinner and we ate together until long after midnight.
And I have many stories like this in so many different places in which Jews around the world, whom I never met previously, have prayed with me and helped me commemorate the life of my father.
What is it that moves them to help someone who on the surface is a total stranger to them? Here is the secret: We are all the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We all share the same mothers of Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel. Although we have never personally met, we are all one family. Now, if our personal identity began when we were first born, this would not make any sense. But our sense of identity is covenantal — not defined by the moment but by our past. From a consumer perspective, the past is history. You can learn from it. It might be interesting, but it’s just events that occurred at a different time and place. From the covenantal perspective, the past is not history, it’s memory. Stories about the Exodus, Maimonides, the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel are not historical matters to us. They are passed down from generation to generation, they are all part of our memory and our identity.
Faith is a reminder that your life has a story. That you are not just accidents of history but drivers of history.
What greater expression of this point than helping me commemorate the memory of my father? Our whole lives are memory. My loss is their loss. My story is their story. We are linked in our grieving for the dead because we are bound by a covenant for life.
And this is one of the key differences between the consumer and the covenant. The consumer focuses on the “I” and what is missing from life, creating a mechanism for fundamental unhappiness by driving one to fill that hole through buying more material goods. The covenant, however, is focused on the “we.” It guides one to contemplate life in a broader sense of memory, so that others are not strangers but fellow members of a family, and that the goal of life is not to focus life ambitions on filling one’s own needs, but to look for opportunities to fulfill the “needs” of others.
These covenantal values are what is needed to nourish the lives of our next generation. There is a crisis in America today. It is not a crisis of faith but a crisis of meaning. Our youth are seeking purpose and they are not finding it in the ephemeral answers offered by our consumer society. Our educational mission is to help our students discover their own individual story within the context of a much larger one. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” We teach our students to bend the arc. To use their God-given talents and skills and to live a life of contribution and service. To locate their studies and personal development within a greater story. Iin this story they are all leaders. Our students are the leaders of tomorrow because they contextualize their lives within our covenant of faith. Faith is a reminder that your life is part of a larger story. Faith is a reminder that your life has a story. That you are not just accidents of history but drivers of history.
The recognition that each individual is created in God’s divine image — and as such is the essence of a covenantal education — rests at the heart of our higher educational enterprise. So long as higher education is exclusively focused on information and research for utility, we will be outpaced by technological change. Information drives consumer decisions, and there are better ways to access information than the halls of a university. Just ask ChatGPT. But the covenantal model will always provide meaning and values for the lives of our students, as it guides one beyond acquisition of information toward an earnest quest for self-discovery and truth.
A consumer questions value. A covenant discovers value. And a life of covenantal values brings a life of mystery, meaning and purpose that we should all be seen as equal objects of favor and respect before God and build lives of intrinsic human dignity and individuality. This is the promise and vision of an education infused with the values of the covenant.