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January 12, 1990 - Image 50

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1990-01-12

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A book excerpt.

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o the geologist, moun-
tains are evidence of
seismic activity, the
process of reshaping the
earth's surface over the
course of millennia. To the
tourist or traveler, mountains
are sometimes beautiful,
sometimes inconvenient
features of a landscape. lb the
skier, snow-covered moun-
tains are an opportunity to
enjoy a challenging outdoor
activity. But to the religious
soul, a mountain is where
God and human beings meet.
It represents earth reaching
up to touch heaven, and
heaven bending down toward
earth. So the ancient Greeks
and other peoples told stories
of the gods living atop the
tallest mountains, and the
Bible describes Moses climb-
ing a mountain to receive the
Law from God.
A few years ago, while my
wife and I were vacationing in
the Pacific Northwest, we
heard the story of the first
men who climbed to the top
of majestic Mount Rainier. In
the late 19th century, two
pioneers found their way west
and were struck by the
beauty of Mount Rainier.
They felt challenged to con-
quer it, to climb to its peak.
They sought to engage an In-
dian guide from one of the
local tribes, but were told that

Harold Kushner is the rabbi
of Tetnple Israel in Natick,
Massachusetts. He is the
author of When Bad Things
Happen to Good People and
When Everything You've
Ever Wanted Isn't Enough.
Copyright © 1989 by Harold
S. Kushner. From the book
Who Needs God, by Harold
Kushner, published by Sum-
mit Books. Printed by

the Indians considered it
sacrilegious to climb the
mountain. It was a sacred
mountain, they were told,
with a lake of fire at its top
(there must have been
memories of volcanic erup-
tions, as with nearby Mount
Saint Helens), and they would
not violate its sanctity by
treading upon it. The
climbers offered more and
more money, and finally
prevailed upon one Indian
guide to help them. He
sought at first to misdirect
them, leading them up hills
and down into valleys in the
hope of tiring them out. But
the two climbers were stub-
born men, and kept going.
Finally he led them a short
way up the slopes of Mount
Rainier and said to them, "I
am forbidden to go any
higher. From here on, you
must go on alone." Bravely
the men continued up the
mountain, determined to
reach the top. Finally they
did. They planted a flag, took
pictures of themselves at the
summit, and returned the
way they had come.
The park ranger who told
us that story thought he was
paying tribute to the courage
and stubborn determination
of two brave men. But the
message I heard was a very
different one. At one level, I
had to admire their achieve-
ment, but at another, more
profound level, I was sad-
dened by their violation of a
sacred precinct, their claim-
ing for man what had pre-
viously been reserved for
God. One of the things that
modern men and women
seem to do best is to put out
sacred fires, extending the do-
main of men and shrinking
the domain of God, and I
suspect that we are the
poorer for it.
Once, there was magic and
a sense of mystery in our
lives. Once (in our childhood

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