Within Us

Once upon a time, as God created the world, He decided to make beings in His image. As he generated his own reflection in man and woman, the angels got word of the
project, and were consumed with jealousy.

“How unfair!” they cried. “Those humans will have it all. They get to experience life on earth with all the perks: laughter, tears, ice cream, wasabi, softness, scratchiness. And as if that ‘being alive’ stuff weren’t blessing enough, they get immortality as well!” (If God is eternal, so, too, would be anything made in God’s image.)

The angels were furious; no being should merit both ice cream and infinity. If heavenly beings were denied earthly experiences, why allow humans celestial ones?

So, they plotted against the humans. They decided to hide immortality from them, and assembled to determine how it could be done. One angel suggested, “Let’s hide it far up in the mountains; I hear humans don’t like to shvitz much.
They’ll never climb that high.”

Another disagreed: “That won’t work. Those granola hippie Jews God put on the West Coast will surely hike to the top of the mountains and discover it. Better we hide eternality far out in the sea. Most folks won’t go farther than a cruise ship will take them.”

Again, others dissented. They realized that any God-like being would eventually access the heights of heaven and the depths of the ocean.

Finally, a wise old angel made a brilliant suggestion: “Let us hide the infinite between and within the humans. That will be the last place on earth they would think to look for it.”

And so it was.

Parashat Nitzavim illustrates the result of the angels’ prank. They succeeded in ensuring that the last place we look for God is right in front of us. The text beseeches the people to take a stand “this day” in testament that the “only God is Eternal,” but acknowledges that we have no idea how to affirm that truth. It speaks to our ignorance of accessing the Infinite, and tries to remedy our delusion. We need not struggle to reach the Divine.

Lo bashamiyim hi.

“No, it is not in heaven,” God explains. “It is very near to you.”

Contact with the Eternal is between us and within us.

The parsha speaks to our fantasy that we must search far and suffer long to retrieve this blessing. Were it not, the wording would be different. God would simply state: “Hey guys, check out this groovy commandment I’ve placed right in front of you.”

Instead, He addresses our misconception that good things are hard to come by. He elaborates: “[It is not] beyond the sea that you should say: ‘Who will cross the sea for us and bring it over to us that we may do it.”

In other words: “No need for drama, difficulty or complication; you don’t need a personal assistant to get this for you. Just open your eyes and see: infinite life is right here, within you.”

But we remain blind, instead assuming that if something good happens easily, it is suspicious. We spit three times, even knock on wood, or mumble a “God forbid.” We prepare for disappointment, assume a mistake, because in our estimation no blessing comes effortlessly. Life is hard. Good fortune takes work. Right?

Not according to the text.

Lo bashamyim hi.

Our divine legacy is found within us and between us: “See, I have set before you this day life and blessing or death and curse. Choose life.”

Easy. Stick with God for an endlessly good time. You’ll receive immortal prosperity through generations that will flow through you, always have what you need, and live a life of endless possibility.

Still, we continue cursing ourselves with dissident struggles — idolizing dramas of the difficult and inaccessible rather than recognizing the abundance we have now. The angels shake their heads as we look everywhere for our hats except our heads, running away from God while He waits within us; She is right here between us.

We need only see that the trees surrounding us don’t struggle to grow, they just grow; fish don’t try to swim, they just swim. It is their nature. And it is our nature to exist eternally in God’s image.

The angels are tired of laughing at us. They forgive us our good fortune and seek to help us remember. We stand this day, testaments of the infinite Divine presence. There’s nowhere else to look, no place else to be, nothing else as perpetually filled with blessing. We need only accept this present of a moment, this gift of being human.

We can stand here and now, present to all the feelings that the angels so covet, in eternal gratitude for having them. We can “Choose life, therefore that [we and our] descendents may live – by loving [our] God; listening to God’s voice.”

By adoring our experience, by hearing His voice in one another’s words. We choose life and death: by dying to our attachment to what was and will be.

By surrendering to this moment as being nothing but what it is, by appreciating the blessing of our curses. We choose it all, for it is revealed to us as One and the same present from our creator. Eternally within and between us, and we don’t have to shvitz or swim to get it.

Rabbi Karen Deitsch will be teaching at the University of Judaism’s continuing education program this fall. You can reach her at karendeitsch@yahoo.com.

‘Leasing’ of Peace Could Be Best Move

OK, let’s get it over with. Normative Islam today cannot make a peace treaty with a Jewish State in the midst of the Islamic world. It just doesn’t make it, not in terms of historical precedent, cultural expectations or religious law. Islamists simply trump liberal Muslims on this.

It is true, of course, that there are ways to construct Muslim religious arguments that will enable even devout Muslims to accept a peace treaty with the State of Israel, but right now, this is striving after wind. That exercise, which is actually of inestimable importance, needs to happen later. First, the religious Arab Muslim world has to come to terms with a Jewish State within it.

In order to help this along, we need to distinguish between normative Islam and religious Muslims. The job now is to create a modus vivendi with religious as well as nonreligious Muslims — not an Islamic peace.

But really, why do we Jews insist on the impossible? Why do we need a peace treaty? Every peace treaty formally adopted by warring parties has been broken when one side felt it was powerful or clever enough to do so. The only way to end belligerency is to create a state of nonbelligerency. A ketubah (marriage contract) alone never prevented abuse or divorce.

So what do we need? I’m not naïve about this. One cannot "make nice" with the Muslim world without some kind of a minimally acceptable religious justification. But don’t expect a formal peace treaty. It is impossible right now and unnecessary.

How about a perpetually renewable 10-year lease on amicable relations? That would be just fine with me. Islam has such a tool. It is called hudna, a renewable cease-fire, and it is entirely acceptable in Islam because it is based on the impeccable precedent of the Prophet Muhammad himself.

It is true, of course, that Muhammad broke his 10-year hudna with the enemy when he found that he was strong enough to do so (no different than peace treaties). And Muslim jurists are fully aware of this. But they also ruled unanimously against breaking cease-fires when it would be self-destructive to do so.

Thus the eternal renewability of the hudna. The solution is to create a deep and prosperous economic relationship, while retaining a powerful Israeli army so that breaking the cease-fire would simply be unacceptable.

Israelis and Palestinians will never get there if Israel insists on nothing less than the impossible peace treaty (sometimes called sulh in Arabic). The problem is that without some radical reinterpretation of the Quran, most religious Muslims fall back on the normative Islamic view that forbids admitting the existence of a non-Muslim polity in the Islamic World.

Fathi Osman, the madrasa- (orthodox Muslim school) and Princeton-educated Egyptian American scholar, has shown that today’s normative view was once the marginal position of militants. But the militants succeeded in setting the agenda of the caliphate at its heyday. Changing that now will take Muslims some time and effort, which we at this point do not have.

Let’s give religious Muslims a way out of their dilemma.

Palestinian Islamists now run most of the social services that the Palestinian Authority has so consistently failed to provide, and this has given them tremendous power and influence over the Palestinian street. Their raison d’être is authentic Islam. And current conceptions of authentic Islam rely on the agenda set by militants over a thousand years ago.

They simply cannot countenance a peace treaty with Israel. We need to help them back out of their ideological corner when they see Jews and Muslims on Al-Jazeera TV talking together about normalizing relations.

For most of us, there need be absolutely no difference between a perpetual cease-fire and a treaty on the ground. But the difference between a cease-fire and a peace treaty is significant to Islamic clerics.

Because they will forbid a peace treaty, let’s bite the bullet and take the cease-fire. However, let’s also insist that cease-fire be real and include increased communication and contact. Both allow a breather for the tough business of constructing the normalization of relations and creating an economic symbiosis that will end the urge for war.

Aside from a militant minority on both sides that believe in an absolutist and uncompromising God who commands misery and even death if that will bring total victory, both Israelis and Palestinians are desperate for a future for their children. Most Muslim Arabs will compromise, even if some of their vocal religious leaders claim that Islam cannot.

Economic interdependence, along with a powerful preventive Israeli military, is the solution. The tool is the hudna, the renewable religious cease-fire.

Reuven Firestone is professor of medieval Judaism and Islam and the director of the Edgar F. Magnin School of Graduate Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institue of Religion in Los Angeles.

To New Beginnings

According to my son, Disney’s “The Lion King” isthe greatest film ever made. He saw it three times in the theater,and insisted on playing the soundtrack every morning on our way toschool. All the way to kindergarten, we sang the film’s stirringtheme song, “The Circle of Life,” until, one morning, I listened tothe words.

The Circle of Life may be humanity’s most popularidea. Nature is all circles: day and night; the turning of theseasons; the revolutions of planets; birth, growth, maturity, decay,death and rebirth. The Circle of Life roots human experience innature and finds the same cyclical pattern in life.

If life is a circle, then death is not an end.Death is not a tragedy. Death is only an invitation to rebirth andrenewal. This is the “myth of eternal return” — the phoenix risingfrom its ashes. No wonder so much of humanity, including Disney,finds comfort in this idea.

The circle, according to Joseph Campbell, is themost ubiquitous symbol in world religion: Buddhists have prayerwheels, Moslems circle the Kaaba, and Native Americans build villagesin circles. Christianity, with its faith in death and resurrection,is all circles.

In Judaism, however, you find no circles. Jewishtradition rebelled against circles because it perceived the deadlyimplications of this belief. Life as a circle is closed, its patternfixed, and nothing new can enter.

“Utter futility!

“Only that shall happen, which hashappened;

“Only that occur, which has occurred;

“There is nothing new under the sun!”(Ecclesiastes 1).

Can there be a more hopeless idea than history,like nature, bound to repeat itself in endless cycles of war,holocaust, plague and destruction? Can we never learn? Can we neverchange?

In the Circle of Life, the individual isextinguished. When there’s nothing new under the sun, there’s nothingnew that I, as an individual, can bring to the world. Anything Idream has already been done. Anything I do will only be washed awayby time until some fool in the next generation arrives at the sameplan and tries again. Ultimately, the Circle of Life is a philosophyof defeat and passivity. If all is fated to repeat, why dream? Whytry? Why bother? Don’t worry. Be happy.

Judaism passionately rejected the Circle of Life.It offered a radical new idea: “Breshit” (“The Beginning”). We are apeople obsessed with beginnings. Our High Holidays commence with RoshHashanah, the new year. According to the Mishna, there are actuallyfour New Years in the Jewish calendar. Twelve times a year, RoshHodesh, the arrival of a new month, is celebrated. The Torah openswith Breshit, “In the Beginning.”

We believe in beginnings because we believe thatthe world can change. We believe that people can change. Destiny isnot fixed. And personality is not fixed. We have the freedom tochoose to be the people we would be. We have the power to create theworld as we would want it. No force of human nature, of destiny, ofheaven, of karma, can rob us of that freedom, and none can relieve usof its responsibility.

We believe in beginnings because we believe thatthe human individual is precious — brought into this world to addsomething totally new and unprecedented. We have expectations foreach human individual. Each of us carries one word of God’s message.Only with your word, your contribution, will the message ever beintelligible, will the world be complete.

As organisms, we live in natural cycles. But asmoral beings, our history is a line, with a beginning and an end,with progress and regress.

The Torah’s central metaphor is a journey. Historyis the trek from Egypt to Canaan, from the House of Bondage to thePromised Land. Whether we, by our efforts and pursuits, have movedthe world forward toward the promise, or backward toward slavery, isthe ultimate measure and significance of our lives.

On Rosh Hashanah, we blow the shofar and sing”Hayom Harat Olom” (“Today is the world’s birthday”). Today, webegin. Today, we celebrate a world of openness and possibilities.Today, we accept the responsibility to move and heal the world.Today, we renew our expectations and our ideals. Today, a new daynever before seen, and never to be repeated.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.

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