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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust" by Charles Patterson. (Lantern Books, $20).
In the forward to "Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust," animal rights activist and daughter of Holocaust survivors, Lucy Rosen Kaplan, states: "I came to understand that the oppression of nonhumans on this Earth eclipses even the ordeal survived by my parents."
Whether the comparison between the extermination of the Jews and our daily slaughter of millions of "food" animals evokes agreement or outrage, you will want to read this meticulously researched and compelling treatment of a painful and controversial subject. Charles Patterson, author of "Anti-Semitism: The Road to the Holocaust and Beyond," elaborates in "Eternal Treblinka" how American slaughterhouses became a model for the gas chambers of Nazi Germany and submits that the killing of animals for food, sport and research is no less an atrocity, a view that is sure to offend some.
The book takes its title from the Isaac Bashevis Singer story, "The Letter Writer," in which a Holocaust survivor speaks a poignant eulogy for a mouse he had befriended. "In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka."
At its best, the book painstakingly reveals how the mindset that some humans are animals justified slavery, the subjugation of women, the annihilation of the Native American population, the eugenics movement and finally the Holocaust itself.
By "domesticating" animals and assuming "dominion" over them, Patterson says, we desensitized ourselves to their suffering because they are "just animals." It was then an easy progression to regard some human beings as more valuable than others. "Thus, with animals already defined as ‘lower life’ fated for exploitation and slaughter, the designation of ‘lesser’ humans as animals paved the way for their subjugation and destruction."
The book is filled with sordid revelations about well-known icons. L. Frank Baum, who delighted the world with "The Wizard of Oz," was a staunch advocate for the extermination of Native Americans, as was William Dean Howells and Harvard professor Oliver Wendell Holmes (father of the Supreme Court justice).
Henry Ford was a virulent anti-Semite whose "The International Jew" sold 500,000 copies in the United States and was reprinted six times in Germany. Hitler kept a life-size portrait of Ford in his office, praised him in "Mein Kampf" and was quoted in the Detroit News as saying: "I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration." Patterson points out that Ford modeled his assembly line after the American slaughterhouses, a concept not lost on his admirer, Hitler.
In a chapter chillingly titled "Improving the Herd, From Animal Breeding to Genocide," Patterson traces the American eugenics movement, which applied the principles of animal husbandry — "breeding the most desirable, and castrating and killing the rest" — to the sterilization of criminals, the "feeble" and mentally ill, a handy paradigm for the "racial cleansing" of the emerging Third Reich. "The progression from sterilization to extermination has been a logical one for the Nazis."
Patterson notes that long before Hitler came to power, Jews had been vilified as animals. "Calling people animals is always an ominous sign because it sets them up for humiliation, exploitation and murder." Like animals, Jews were "herded" into crowded cattle cars, transported long distances without food or water, tattooed and "selected" for extermination and led through tubes to the "killing floor."
If Jews are rats, one need feel no guilt in degrading and exterminating them. If Jews are pigs, then the crematoria were mere "processing plants." Patterson quotes the artist Judy Chicago, who wonders "about the ethical distinction between processing pigs and doing the same thing to people defined as pigs."
Many would argue that to compare Nazi genocide to the slaughterhouse is to trivialize the Holocaust. I, for one, was appalled. To buttress his case, Patterson provides numerous "testimonials" from Holocaust survivors and their families as well as from Germans who became animal activists because of their experience, not in spite of it. While the stories are compelling, here Patterson is preaching to the choir.
The events of Sept. 11 and the continuing suicide bombings in Israel demonstrate that there are individuals today who do not value the sanctity of even their own lives, much less that of other humans. Patterson may experience difficulty, therefore, in convincing a nation of mindless hamburger eaters, now focused on survival, to turn its energies to the plight of the cow.
And yet, perhaps an extreme view must be taken to get attention.
In the book, animal activist Christa Blanke, a former Lutheran pastor, notes that "130 years ago, the church remained silent about the slave trade because they were only black people. Fifty years ago, the church remained silent because they were only Jews. Today, the church remains silent because they are only animals."