The World is a Bridge: Approaching our Fears in a Troubled Time

I am lucky that, as a rabbi, no one ever checked the grades I received in high school physics. The whole topic baffled me. I remember painstakingly constructing a bridge out of balsa-wood and glue. Somehow I was supposed to understand how the forces exerted in relationship to the torque applied would keep the bridge solid when weight was placed upon it. In preparation for this assignment the teacher showed us a video of the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge, otherwise known as ‘Galloping Gertie.’ In the grainy black and white video, taken in 1940, you can see the bridge bending and twisting in the wind. Next, the bridge splinters, cracks, and falls into the water below. I was fairly certain that this would be the fate of my balsa-wood masterpiece, as well. Let’s just say, I wasn’t wrong.

Going into the assignment I was already hesitant about heights, and the images I’d seen of this bridge literally collapsing into the water below didn’t help matters. While rationally I knew that Galloping Gertie was a history lesson and not recent news footage, I couldn’t forget the image of the horizontal bridge going vertical, then violently splintering apart.

Still today I need to take a deep, centering breath before crossing a bridge. I hold the steering wheel tightly with two hands, and focus intently until I am once again over land. As a transplant to the Bay Area, this can be particularly challenging. Something about the heights, plus the narrow shoulder and the image of Galloping Gertie in my mind makes me reconsider the appointment in Oakland. My fear of bridges is manageable, but it’s there.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov teaches: Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m’od. V’ha-ikar lo l’fached k’lal. The whole world is a very narrow bridge. The most important part is not to be afraid.As someone who balks at bridges, this is a difficult statement. The whole world is a frightening place. It’s not so easy to talk ourselves out of the fear we feel creeping into our hearts.

For many members of the Jewish community today, there is a fear that the bridge which has carried us into mainstream society is beginning to splinter and crack.

Last night Rabbi Eisner spoke with us about hard truths that we would rather not hear: Rising anti-Semitism abroad and at home, threats to Israel’s survival and the ambivalence so many Jews feel today about their own Jewish identities. It is not an easy time to be Jewish.

It was last October that the Pew Research Center published a ‘Portrait of American Jews.’1 In a New York Times analysis, Professor Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary called the survey a “very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification.”2 

The Times article went on to describe the gap between religious and non-religious Jews widening with each generation, explaining that those raised in less-observant households are less likely to create religious households of their own. Alan Cooperman, deputy director of the project explained, ‘It’s very stark. Older Jews are Jews by religion. Younger Jews are Jews of no religion.”3 

The article concludes on an ominous note, “This should serve as a wake-up call for all of us as Jews . . . to think about what kind of community we’re going to be able to sustain if we have so much assimilation.”4 

On the morning the article came out, I was greeted by an urgent, external panic. The link showed up at least four times in my inbox, the subject line crying out, sometimes in all caps: WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THIS!?!? My Facebook feed was punctuated repeatedly throughout the day not only by links to the Times article and the study itself, but by both formal and informal responses ranging from anger over ‘airing our dirty laundry’ on a national media platform to fear for the concerns dramatically outlined in the Times.

Showing up at work that morning our clergy team greeted each other. “Did you see it?” we asked, shaking our heads, not sure yet how to respond to the study and the broadly publicized analysis.

Underlying these reactions — before all of the sermons, panels, webinars and blog-posts that followed in its wake — was a slow-burning fear steadily making its way through the Jewish community: Are we in danger? Is it possible that after thousands of years we are really and truly dying out?

Is it possible that as we seek to be an open and inclusive community that is openly included by the world around, we have pushed ourselves towards the precipice of complete assimilation? These questions take on a new significance in light of the difficult and real concerns that we heard last night.

It wouldn’t be the first time that the Jewish people have feared for survival. The view of Judaism and Jewish history that is defined by tragedy, or the threat of tragedy, is credited to historian Heinrich Graetz,
who published his monumental work The History of the Jews in 1846. His perspective is called a ‘lachrymose’ view of Jewish history and existence. It is defined by an emphasis on “the difficulties and persecutions undergone by the Jews…”5 In a ‘lachrymose’ reading of the Jewish story we are defined by the threats we have encountered as a people.

The widely read article in the New York Times was not only a lachrymose reading of neutrally articulated data, but also a lachrymose, fearful prediction for the Jewish future. As I opened each email forwarding me the link, thinking of how to respond to the urgency of all-caps subject lines, it felt like we were all blindly taking a big step forward onto a very wobbly bridge — and according to that article, the bridge was ready to splinter and crack. It was frightening.

Our nation felt a different fear, an intense, gut-wrenching fear on September 11, 2001. We all remember how our lives changed that day. At the time, I was a student at Brandeis University with a plane ticket booked to fly from Logan airport to spend Rosh Hashanah with my family. After the attacks, I changed my plans. I was too afraid to fly. And for the remaining years that I lived in Boston, if I had to travel by air I would drive an extra hour to fly out of Providence, Rhode Island instead.

I couldn’t bring myself to board a plane out of the Logan airport. I couldn’t bear the thought of placing myself in the footsteps of those who were on the hijacked flights. In those days, we learned to walk wide circles around our fear. We were each seeking to protect our own survival. I wasn’t the only one who chose to take an alternative route.

In the years following 9/11, “[psychologist] Gerd Gigerenzer . . . gathered data on travel and fatalities. In 2006, he published a paper comparing the numbers . . . prior to the September 11 attacks . . . [to the] years after.

[Gigerenzer documented a] shift from planes to cars in America that lasted one year. Then traffic patterns went back to normal. [He] also found that . . . fatalities on American roads soared after September 2001 and settled back to normal levels in September 2002. . . the number of Americans killed in car crashes as a direct result of the switch from planes to cars . . . was 1,595. That is more than one-half the total death toll of [this] terrorist atrocity. It is six times higher than the total number of people on board the doomed flights . . .”6 This was the result of our communal fear of flying.

On 9/11 we awoke to this new, astonishing and world changing fear.The morning the Pew Report was published, a seeping, theoretical fear came over leaders in the Jewish community. When I cross a bridge, I am filled with an irrational, but still white-knuckled fear.

Though otherwise incomparable, each of these fears is potentially paralyzing. We each have worries that we face, be they large or small, immediately gut-wrenching or slowly, silently burning. Our fears are our own version of the bridge: the moment when we need to decide whether or not we will go from here to there.

Rabbi Steven Arnold shared this interpretation of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s famous reflection: “Take a look at the original text,” Arnold urges. “Nachman didn’t say lo l’fached k’lal, don’t be afraid at all. [the original text said] klal yitpached sh’lo, man shouldn’t completely enfear himself. Or, better: ‘paralyze himself with fear!’ In colloquial English: ‘he shouldn’t freak himself out!”7 

In other words, we will all encounter narrow bridges. The most important part is not to let fear keep us from discovering what lies just ahead on the other side.

Jewish tradition teaches us about two distinct kinds of fear. According to Rabbi Alan Lew, beloved teacher of blessed memory: my fear of bridges is the first kind: pachad. ‘Pachad [is] projected or imagined fear. . . It is astounding how often such fears become the organizing principles of our lives and how much they close us off from the world.’8 

Pachad is paralyzing. It stops us in our tracks. Pachad grounds us when we are scared to fly. Pachad tells a story of the Jewish people that ends in our eventual and inevitable demise.

But there is another kind of fear that dwells within us too. Lew continues, “Norah is a very different kind of fear. It is the fear that overcomes us when we suddenly find ourselves in possession of considerably more energy than we are used to … a mixture of fear and awe . . . we call this bristling energy . . . norah . . .Norah [tries] to push us open. The fear we experience . . . is simply our resistance to this opening.”9 

This norah, this awe, is a surge of adrenaline.Norah, or awe, forces us to comment, to make a change.
Norah urges us to reach out to those who are hurting.
Norah motivates us, strengthens us.
Norah makes us brave.

Norah, or awe, is what motivated Daniel Lewin when he tried to stop terrorists from hijacking American Airlines flight 11. I saw awe grip the Brandeis University student body when we all gathered outside the library for a silent vigil that afternoon. Our memories of those days are laced with feelings of awe: the flags that flew, the ways that we greeted one another, no longer taking the smile of a stranger for granted. In a fearful moment, awe opens our hearts. Norah, awe, is the bridge that connects one to another.

Salo Baron, another Jewish Historian told his version of the Jewish people’s story. Challenging the lachrymose view depicted by Heinrich Gratz, Baron . . . explained in an interview that, yes, “Suffering is part of the destiny of the Jews . . . but so is repeated joy as well as ultimate redemption.” 10

Baron insisted Jewish life was not to be defined by repeated threats to our survival, but rather by our persistent, miraculous and vibrant commitment to living.11

Baron wrote Jewish history with awe. Not a story shrouded in warning or fear, but a remarkable telling of the past that looks forward to the future with some trepidation, yes, but primarily with norah: awe.

This must be our current forecast as well. We need to know that we can, and we will make it to the other side: past the threats of anti-Semitism, dangers to Israel, and concerning assimilation.

To know that we will someday participate in a Judaism that is better, brighter, and more openhearted than the Judaism we read about in those first assessments of the Pew Report.

To speak not with fear about assimilation, but to welcome with awe the members of our community who join us from other traditions; we as a people are stronger for your presence.

Awe is the power that allows us to create out-of-the box solutions like the North Peninsula Teen Collaborative: a way for all teens in our area to take part in Jewish activities that interest them, whether or not their parents have chosen to affiliate with a synagogue.

Awe is the sense we get when we look around this room and see that not only do we have company on this journey into the New Year, but that it is good company.

Awe is what drives us to embrace the challenge given to us last night by Rabbi Eisner: to protect our Jewish community, to deepen our relationship with Israel, to vote so that our voices are heard in the face of injustice.

Two historians told the story of the Jewish people. One rang a warning bell, and the other sang a victory song. It is our responsibility to write this next chapter.

In just a few moments we’ll read a difficult story from our Torah. In the Akedah, or the binding of Isaac, God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son. As Abraham holds the knife over Isaac, he hears God’s voice. Abraham looks up. ‘Ki-yirei Elohim,’ ‘You approach God with awe.’ And Abraham sees the ram, left to take Isaac’s place upon the altar.

Were Abraham filled with pachad, he would have frozen with fear, kept his eyes turned down and his heart closed to God’s message. Instead he yearned for awe, lifting his eyes, opening his heart, writing a different end to the story.

The rebuilt Tacoma Narrows Bridge opened in 1950. It still stands today, though it is now part of a twin bridge-complex that ushers travelers safely and efficiently between Tacoma and the Kitsap Peninsula.12 It has been built with wisdom, with understanding, and with a deep respect for the torque and the forces that keep the bridge strongly suspended as travelers make their way to the other side.

In the New Year, may we face our fears. As we write the future of the Jewish people, let us not lay Judaism down on the altar, knife raised, eyes turned down. Rather, let us be Abraham, beginning 5775 with awe; ready to notice the possibilities and opportunities waiting for us in the thicket as we enter the next chapter of vibrant Jewish survival.

The whole world is like a bridge. As the waters churn below us, we build the strongest structure we can. And we know that the most important part is to rise up above the fears, lifting our eyes to the awesome responsibility ahead.

 

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1 http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/

2 http://nytimes.com/2013/10/01/us/poll-shows-major-shift-in-identity-of-us-jews.html?_r=0

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Marx,Karl "around a Surprising Encounter with Heinrich Graetz," Georgraphy of Hope, ed. Birnbaum, Pierre. Stanford University Press, 2008.

6 The science of fear, pg 3-4 Daniel Gardner

7 CCAR: Central Conference of American Rabbis Member Group. In Facebook Member Group. Retrieved September 7, 2014 from https://www.facebook.com/groups/ccarmembers/.

8 Lew, Alan. Be Still and Get Going.

9 Lew, Alan. Be Still and Get Going.

10 http://www.nytimes.com/1989/11/26/obituaries/salo-w-baron-94-scholar-of-jewish-history-dies.html

11 ibid.

12 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tacoma_Narrows_Bridges