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God of Contracts and Kindness

08/03/2023 08:58:35 AM


I don’t know much about crypto currency. I’m not a banker or in tech and I don’t have any interest in bitcoin (though I do have a dear friend who wrote a Modern Love column on it once, which clearly I recommend and is the closest I’ve gotten to the subject). To be honest, I thought crypto was “over” — like bell bottoms or Furbies, a fad we hope not to return again. But then I was informed that crypto companies do other things, like making Smart Contracts (don’t worry, this wont be about computers all the way through).

A Smart Contract is a contract that executes itself. Meaning, if you agree to pay x in exchange for y, the contract itself automatically transfers the money when its conditions are met and that’s the end of that. It eliminates doubt, middlemen, and wiggle room. I imagine some sort of computer animated contract that when signed lights up into golden autonomous magic turning gears a la Harry Potter.

Now I think in general we value the idea of efficiency. And we assume if you agreed to something, you ought to carry it out. I can’t say anything is necessarily wrong with a Smart Contract as long as it isn’t a predatory one. But something about this gave me pause. I think I like the idea of wiggle room. I want a contract, but one of obligation and of compassion, the sort of contract that God made with us.

In Parshat Eikev, Moses reminds the peopleויָ֣דַעְתָּ֔ כִּֽי־ה׳ אֱלֹקיךָ ה֣וּא הָֽאֱלֹקים הָאֵל֙ הַֽנֶּאֱמָ֔ן שֹׁמֵ֧ר הַבְּרִ֣ית וְהַחֶ֗סֶד” , “ “Know that Hashem your God, the God, the trustworthy God, keeps the brit and the chesed”, the covenant and the lovingkindness, with us.

What does this mean? Maimonedes explains chesed as the kindness you didn’t earn and to which you can never be entitled, but that you receive as a gift. God makes a brit with us: if you keep these rules you will get these benefits, if you don’t keep up your end, you will be kicked out. But there is this extra bit, this chesed, where maybe God also says: but that’s not the end of it. You can break it and you can repair it, as you do every year. I will forgive you and I will forgive your debts to me. You can try over and over again. You may not get these blessings, but you will get others. And most of all, I will help you keep the contract; I will teach you and I will guide you and I will send people to help you. It is not a Smart Contract, auto-enforced.

Our relationship with God is governed by rules but also by compassion. We must strive to bring such wisdom to our own relationships with other people — perhaps for a partner, or a child, or a student, or a friend. We might say to ourselves, “OK, if they don’t do x, then they can’t have y,” ie: If you don’t do your homework, you can’t have dessert. If you don’t call me on my birthday, I wont call you on yours. If you talk in class, you miss recess. We value such rules for the sense of structure and consistency that they give and that we crave. These contracts can help the world feel safe, fair, predictable, and navigable. But rules without compassion, without give, drag us down. What if instead I help you redirect your bubbling classroom energy? Or I call you as an act of chesed? What if dessert is something you get because its delicious, not because you earned it?

Writing relational contracts without compassion builds a life of rigidity that makes us brittle, inflexible, and distracts us from the purpose of any relational bond — to love. The first word of our brit is v’ahavta, and you shall love. To do so, we need more than consistent and predictable rules. We also need compassion. So while we may hold fast to our earnestly set expectations, rules, boundaries, and contracts with others, let’s not forget the chesed, the other half of God’s relationship with us, the sense of compassion that holds our contracts in service of love.


Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784