The Circle and the Line

Headshot of Rabbi Edward Feinstein
Headshot of Rabbi Edward Feinstein
Rabbi Edward Feinstein

Rabbi Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. He has served on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University since 1990 and is an instructor for the Wexner Heritage Program, lecturing widely across the United States.

In 1982, Rabbi Feinstein became the founding director of the Solomon Schechter Academy of Dallas, Texas, building the school’s enrollment from 40 to over 500 in eight years, and winning national recognition as center of educational excellence. In 1990, he assumed the position of executive director of Camp Ramah in California, the largest Jewish camp and conference center in the western United States. He came to Valley Beth Shalom in 1993 at the invitation of the renowned Rabbi Harold Schulweis, whom he succeeded as the congregation’s senior rabbi in 2005.

Rabbi Feinstein is a member of the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, a member of the school board of Milken Community High School and an active member of AIPAC. A survivor of two bouts of colon cancer, he speaks frequently to cancer support groups all over Southern California.

posted on September 22, 2017
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

When my children were young, they fell in love with Disney's The Lion King. We saw the film three times in the theater and owned all the paraphernalia Disney would sell us. We played the soundtrack in the car each morning on the way to school, belting out the film's stirring theme song, "The Circle of Life" until one morning I listened to the words.

The Circle of Life may be humanity's most popular idea. Nature is all circles: day and night; the turning of the seasons; the revolutions of planets. It was obvious to find the same cyclical pattern in human existence: birth, growth, maturity, decay, death, and then … rebirth. If life is a circle, then death is not an end. Death is not a tragedy. Death is only an invitation to rebirth and renewal. This is the "Myth of Eternal Return" -- the phoenix rising from its ashes.

The circle, according to mythologist Joseph Campbell, is the most ubiquitous symbol in world religion: Buddhist hold prayer wheels, Moslems circle the Kabbah, Native Americans villages are built in circles. Christianity, with its faith in death and resurrection, is all circles.

In Judaism, you find few circles. Jewish tradition rebelled against circles because it perceived the deadly implications of this belief. Life as a circle is closed, its pattern fixed, and nothing new can enter. So Kohelet complained:

"Utter futility!
Only that shall happen, which has happened,
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, is bound to repeat itself in endless cycles of war, holocaust, plague and destruction? Can we never learn? Can we never change?

In the Circle of Life the individual is extinguished. When there's nothing new under the sun, there's nothing new that I, as an individual, can bring to the world. Anything I dream has already been done. Anything I do will only be washed away by time until some fool in the next generation arrives at the same plan and tries again. Ultimately, the Circle of Life is a philosophy of defeat and passivity. If all is fated to repeat, why dream? Why try? Why bother? Hakuna Metata! Don't worry! Be happy!

Judaism passionately rejected the Circle of Life. It presented human consciousness a radical new idea: "Bresheet, The Beginning." We are a people obsessed with beginnings. Our High Holidays commence with Rosh Hashana, the New Year. According to the Mishna, there are actually four New Years in the Jewish calendar. And eleven times a year, Rosh Hodesh, the arrival of a new month is celebrated. The Torah opens with Bresheet, "In the Beginning." If Torah books are called by their first significant word, then the Torah's proper title is itself, -"Bresheet, The Book of Beginning."  

We believe in beginnings because we believe that the world can change. We believe that people can change. Destiny is not fixed. Fate is not absolute. Personality is not fixed. We have the freedom to choose to be the person we would be and the power to shape the world as we would want it. No force of human nature, of fate, of natural or supernatural determinism robs us of that freedom, and none relieves us of its awesome responsibility.

We believe in beginnings because we believe that the human individual is precious -- brought into this

world to add something totally new and unprecedented. We have expectations for each human individual. Each of us carries one word of God's message. Only with your word, your contribution, will the message ever be intelligible, will the world be complete.

As organisms we live in natural cycles. But as moral beings our history is a line with a beginning and an end, with progress and regress. The Torah's central metaphor is a journey -- the world's greatest

road-story.. History is the trek from Egypt to Canaan, from the House of Bondage to the Promised Land. Whether we, by our efforts and pursuits, have moved the world forward toward the promise, or backward toward slavery, is the ultimate measure and significance of our lives.

On Rosh Hashana we blew the Shofar and proclaimed "Hayom Harat Olam, Today is the world's birthday." This week, we open the Torah and begin the journey. We celebrate a world of openness and possibilities. And we accept the responsibility to move and heal the world. We renew our expectations and our ideals. This week, we learn to celebrate a new day, never before seen, and never to be repeated. May the journey bring us to blessings.