Click here for part 1 of this article.
Guarding the Covenant in the Modern World – Part 2
Rectifying sexual lust is known as tikun habrit, in traditional sources. This phrase can be translated as “rectifying the covenant.” What exactly is a covenant and what does it have to do with sexuality? The first thing to note is that our drive to procreate—our sexuality—can only be properly expressed from within the limits of a marital union, which itself is a form of a covenant between a man and a woman. So, here’s that word “covenant” again, which we need to define.
What is a covenant?
A covenant can be defined as a mutual commitment between two parties to remain together always, no matter what happens, and even if all the current reasons for the connection become irrelevant or are made null and void. When a man and woman decide to marry, they enter a covenant of marriage. When a man and woman initially meet, they might feel that they do not need to commit to one another. They may be deeply in love and feel that they were made for each other. But the decision to make a covenant means they wish to persist in their bond, even if all the reasons for their love disappear, or even if all sorts of difficulties arise. This is unconditional love. We are together forever! This is the nature of a covenant.
A covenant, then, is a deep desire to be in a relationship that does not have any conditions. It depends on neither intellectual understanding nor emotional or physical arousal. In Chassidut, this type of desire is described as situated, “above reason and knowledge” (לְמַעְלָה מִטַּעַם וְדַעַת). Many deep crises can be rectified by the power of this deep desire, for when the parties know that their relationship is not dependent on external circumstances, they can overcome all sorts of impasses. When a major crisis suddenly rises in their marriage, the couple’s ability to overcome it depends upon the memory of their steadfast covenant, stronger than any current conflict.
This is also true of our relationship with God; it too is a covenant. One of the lowest points of the relationship between the Children of Israel and God was hit just before God sent Moses to redeem them from Egypt. Moses revealed to the people that the sign of the coming redemption from Egypt was the words, “I have deeply remembered” (פָּקֹד פָּקַדְתִּי), using the verb pakod instead of the more common zachor. Chassidut explains zachor represents the arousal to return to a good relationship with the other based on his positive qualities and reliance on factors that we have almost forgotten. However, pakod—deep remembrance—is completely different. It is an expression of a desire that does not depend on reason. Hence, God redeemed us from Egypt purely due to the covenant that He made with the patriarchs and this covenant did not depend on anything. Therefore, it could serve as the motivation for the redemption regardless of whatever the current spiritual state of the Children of Israel might be.
Essentially, God’s unconditional love for us is the Divine response to the longing that we feel for Him, which is also unconditional. When a Jew is asked why he desires God, he answers that he does not have an explanation. In precisely this manner, when the angels come to God and ask Him why He chooses Israel, he answers, “I do not know.” It would be deplorable if our love for God would be dependent on a particular reason and vice versa. When there is no reason for love, no counter-logic can destroy it.
Our irrational longing for God is an unblemished gift from Heaven. Those longings are the very covenant embedded in our souls. No debasement can blemish that point in the soul. Even sexual impropriety, which, as we saw, subjugates our entire personality, our intellect, and our hearts, can at the very most conceal the longing from our consciousness, causing what is referred to in Chassidut as “a concealment of the essential wholeness” (הֶעְלֵם הַשְּׁלֵמוּת הָעַצְמִית). It cannot, however, sever our connection with God.
Rectifying the Covenant in Practice
Let us go back to the beginning. Failures involving sexuality are comparable to losing our sense of self, the very essence of our being. They leave us with a sense of despair that encompasses our entire personality. How can we do teshuvah for this? What does it mean to rectify the covenant?
In essence, all repentance constitutes a return to an original condition. I have fallen and I rise and return to my initial place. When we blemish the sexual covenant, however, we do not experience an external, marginal fall; rather we discover an existential state inside us, one from where it is not at all clear how to return. This is why it is written in Kabbalah that ordinary teshuvah, regular repentance is not effective for rectifying the sexual covenant. Naturally, this should not be taken as condoning misconduct. We are still obligated to feel remorse and make every effort not to blemish ourselves sexually again. We are expected to suppress lustful thoughts and to direct our attention to positive matters. With effort, it is certainly possible to succeed. But even if we never transgress again, we cannot recreate ourselves. Still, we have to acknowledge the fact that this is who we are, and if we do fall, we should not be shocked. This is precisely the reason for the despair that accompanies many when they confront their sexual lusts—the feeling that repentance in the usual sense simply doesn’t work.
But this is not the end of the road. Far from it. When we recognize that we do not have the power to change ourselves, that is when we can begin to grasp onto that which is on the one hand not us but is somehow always inside us. We are referring to the will of the heart, the re’uta deleeba we discussed earlier. Chassidut teaches that rectification of the covenant is very simply a rediscovery of the covenant that is already engraved in us. It is the memory that our inherent connection with God is unconditional and even when we are guilty of misconduct, we are still bound to Him. Instead of torturing ourselves over the fact that we have fallen, rejecting the image that we see in the mirror with repulsion, and feeling sorry for ourselves we need only return to the gift of longing and remember our eternal covenant with God.
Click here for part 1 of this article.