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Covenant & Conversation: The Complete Series



This collection makes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ brilliant essays on the weekly Torah portion available in book form for the first time. The Torah portion read each week is an encounter between present and past, between moment and eternity, which frames Jewish consciousness and gives us a unique sense of living out a narrative. Rabbi Sacks fuses Jewish tradition, Western philosophy and literature to present a highly developed understanding of the human condition under God’s sovereignty. Erudite, eloquent and wise, Rabbi Sacks is a unique voice within the contemporary Jewish world – these essays allow us to share his vision of living with the times through a dialogue with the Torah.


Genesis is Judaism’s foundational work, a philosophy of the human condition under the sovereignty of God. It is less about God, than about human beings and their relationship with God. The theology is almost always implicit rather than explicit. What Genesis is, in fact, is philosophy written in a deliberately non-philosophical way. It deals with all the central questions of philosophy: what exists, what can we know, are we free, and how we should behave. But it does so in a way quite unlike the philosophical classics; philosophy is truth as system, Genesis is truth as story. We learn about what exists by way of a story about creation. We learn about knowledge through a tangled tale of the first man, the first woman, a serpent and a tree. We begin to understand human freedom and its abuse through the story of Cain. We learn how to behave through the lives of Abraham and Sarah and their children. The protagonists of Genesis are astonishingly human; a world away from the heroes and heroines of myth. They are not mighty warriors or miracle workers, nor rulers commanding armies and winning legendary victories. They are ordinary people made extraordinary by their willingness to follow God.

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The book of Exodus is the West’s meta-narrative of hope. It tells an astonishing story of how a group of slaves were liberated from the mightiest empire of the ancient world. Theologically, its message is even more revolutionary: the supreme power intervenes in history in defense of the powerless. Exodus is about the birth of a nation; about politics, society, and the principles on which a people can come together to form associations. Thus it teaches us about justice, freedom and the rule of law; about the sanctity of life and human dignity. At the heart of Exodus is the monumental covenant at Sinai, which is nothing less than the first-ever statement of a free society, in which an entire nation committed itself to the sovereignty of God, with the revolutionary understanding that the religious situation is a partnership a reciprocal relationship, between God and humankind.

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Of all the Mosaic books, Vayikra, Leviticus, is the one most out of step with contemporary culture. Many find it difficult to relate to its concerns. It opens with an account of sacrifices, something we have not experienced for close to two millennia. Its preoccupation with ritual purity and defilement seems to come from another age… Yet Levitcus is a – perhaps even the – key text of Judaism. Vayikra wrestles with some of the deepest questions of religion. How, in a finite world, can we relate to an infinite God who cannot be identified with any natural phenomenon, who can neither be seen nor visually represented? At a quite different level, how can we take the fire of religious inspiration and turn it into an everlasting flame? How can we recapture “peak experiences” on a regular basis? And how can we take a way of life for the few and make it the possession of the many?… The book begins with an elite, the priests, sons of Aaron, a minority within a minority, one specific family within the tribe of Levi. It culminates in a call from God to the entire nation. It begins in the Sanctuary but ends in society. It democratises kedusha, holiness, the sign of God’s presence, so that it becomes part of the ongoing life of the people as a whole.

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The book of Numbers – in Hebrew, Bemidbar, “In the Wilderness” – is a key text for our time. It is among the most searching, self-critical books in all of literature about what Nelson Mandela called “the long walk to freedom.” Its message is that there is no shortcut to liberty. Numbers is not an easy book to read, nor is it an optimistic one. It is a sober warning set in the midst of a text – the Hebrew Bible – that remains the West’s master narrative of hope. The Mosaic books, especially Exodus and Numbers, are about the journey from slavery to freedom and from oppression to law-governed liberty. On the map, the distance from Egypt to the Promised Land is not far. But the message of Numbers is that it always takes longer than you think. For the journey is not just physical, a walk across the desert. It is psychological, moral, and spiritual. It takes as long as the time needed for human beings to change… You cannot arrive at freedom merely by escaping from slavery. It is won only when a nation takes upon itself the responsibilities of self-restraint, courage, and patience. Without that, a journey of a few hundred miles can take forty years. Even then, it has only just begun.

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With the book of Deuteronomy, the entire biblical project becomes lucid and reaches its culmination. Deuteronomy is the last act of the Jewish people’s drama before becoming a nation in its own land, and it forms the context of all that follows. It is the deepest and most remarkable statement of what Judaism is about, and it is no less relevant today than it was then. If anything, it is more so. Deuteronomy is in essence a programme for the creation of a moral society in which righteousness is the responsibility of all. The good society was to be, within the limits of the world as it was thirty-three centuries ago, an inclusive if not an entirely egalitarian one. Time and again we are told that social joy must embrace the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the Levite, people without independent status or means. It is to be one nation under God. How can we create structures of cooperation in a world of conflicting human wills?… Get individuals to come together in a pledge, a bond, of mutual fidelity and collective responsibility. This is no longer a world of separate “I”s in pursuit of self-interest. It is a world of a collective “We,” in which we agreed to merge our identity into something larger than us, which defines who we are and which obligates us to a set of undertakings by which we freely choose to be bound. This is the world of covenant, and it is what the Torah is about.

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