Starting with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, one of the themes of the Jewish holidays at the start of the Jewish new year is the juxtaposition between the universal and the particular. Rosh Hashanah is a day that commemorates the birthday of the world, of all humanity – certainly a universal day if ever there was one. However, the Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah is the particularistic narrative about the birth of Isaac and the mantle of the tradition being passed down from Abraham to Isaac.
This juxtaposition culminates with the festival of Sukkot. Some see the days of the holiday as the seven days of feasting after a wedding, but who is invited to these wedding celebrations? All the nations of the world, all peoples, are invited to a universal Sukkah. The biblical prophet Isaiah exclaims, "For My house shall be called the house of prayer for all peoples. Thus declares Adonai, God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel." (Isaiah 56: 7-8). Isaiah saw the Jewish people's particularistic, unique identity and message bringing the entire world closer together, closer to peace.
We can also view the relationship between the universal and the particular as the relationship between the individual and the community. In his book, The Home We Build Together, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addresses this issue within the context of how liberal democracies build social cohesion while honoring the dignity of individual differences. Sacks argues that the notion of a social contract no longer is able to guide our understanding of community. Instead, he argues that we should consider using the concept of covenant to imagine our individual role within a community:
For Sacks, contracts are agreements for mutual advantage. They are undertaken by individuals or groups on the basis of self-interest. They have specific purposes and can be terminated by mutual consent. Covenants, on the other hand, are moral commitments, and they are open-ended. They are sustained not by letter of law or by self-interest, but by loyalty, fidelity, faithfulness.
I read recently that the Head of the Trinity School in Manhattan cited Lord Rabbi Sacks in a letter to parents. That head suggested that the "contractual view of school is that families pay fees in exchange for the educational skills and credentials their children seek; the covenantal view of school is that families enter into a partnership with the school to build a learning community in which their children will develop their potential to serve others."
I like to believe that the vast majority of families in private independent schools and Jewish day school seek a covenantal relationship with their schools. They believe that the community plays a strong role in the education of their children and that they must contribute to that community in order for it to continue to thrive.
Covenantal communities are built on the contributions of their individual members. When the individual unique members of the community contribute to the larger body, they collectively create something greater than they could have built alone. This model for community honors and values individual differences and at the same time recognize that the universal has value and meaning for individuals. A covenantal community balances particular needs with communal norms and values beyond the transactional.