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Crossing the Narrow Bridge

Our minds are always busy, and sometimes a song will just show up. Through recent times of conflict, natural disaster, economic turmoil, human suffering and personal loss, one song kept rising from memory into consciousness. If you know it, sing along:

Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m’od v’ha-ikkar lo l’faheid k’lal.
“The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to fear at all.”

These uplifting words come from the great Hassidic Rebbe, Nahman of Bratzlav. One fascinating fact: this song became popular at a moment of great danger to Israel: the Yom Kippur War. Moshe Kohn was told by two acquaintances who were in the Tank Corps attack across the Suez Canal led by Ariel Sharon:

When Sharon began his advance toward the bridgehead on the canal, the Bratslaver song was suddenly broadcast from his command over the radios and intercoms of all the attacking tanks. This electrified their crews, who soon joined in the singing themselves as they headed for battle, until the song turned into a Tank Corps chorus and the atmosphere became one of riding to a celebration rather than to possible death or maiming. It was soon after that the song became number one on the unofficial hit parade, with people humming it to themselves everywhere. For at least a couple of years after that, no bar or bat mitzvah or wedding celebration was complete without it.1

So Rabbi Nahman’s “very narrow bridge” was also an actual pontoon bridge over the Suez Canal at the turning point of Israel’s war for survival!

And yet, there’s something strange about these lyrics. Never fear? Is that even possible? Isn’t a little bit of fear often a healthy thing? It can make you properly careful when you have to do something dangerous like…crossing a narrow bridge.

So I did a little research, and I discovered that Rav Nahman actually said something different. In his great work, Likutei Moharan (II:48), he writes, k’she-adam tzarikh la-avor gesher tzar m·od, ha-k’lal v’ha-ikkar shelo yit-paheid k’lal. As the official Breslov translation puts it, “When a person must cross an exceedingly narrow bridge, the general principle and the essential thing is not to frighten yourself at all.”

Not to frighten yourself—the narrow bridge is daunting, fraught with risk and danger. A little care is good, but you’ll never get across if you surrender to fears of your own making. At such a moment, caution is wisdom, but fear is a choice. Rav Nahman would have approved of FDR’s words, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Rav Nahman concludes this passage, which was written to encourage his followers not to despair in their spiritual progress, “You should understand the power of encouraging yourself, and never yield to despair, God forbid, no matter what happens. The main thing is always to be happy, to gladden yourself in any way possible.”

This teaching is even more remarkable in light of Rav Nahman’s life. His biographer, Arthur Green, writes, “[His] life was one of constant struggle, or constant rise and fall in relationship to God, a life alternating between periods of bleak depression leading him to the brink of despair, and redoubled efforts to try once more to come close to God.”2

So we can’t dismiss Rav Nahman’s words as the prattling of a naïve Pollyanna. He knew well that narrow bridge and its terrors; he knew despair and depression, and yet he taught his followers to hope and to sing.

My mental image is of a steep-walled, deep ravine over rocky, foaming rapids. The bridge is right out of an Indiana Jones movie, built of frayed ropes and loose planks, swaying in the wind. I would never cross such a thing in a million years, except I have to cross it every day—and so do you.

Rabbi David Wolpe writes, “The world is a bridge on which we pass from one thing to another. There is no stability. Each new place, new change, creates fear. Rabbi Nahman did not compare the world to a field on which we might rest, but to a bridge, the symbol of passage, of journeying. And the secret is not to find a safe place, but to navigate the narrow crossing and remain unafraid.”3

We like to pretend that life is stable and secure. We don’t want to feel vulnerable. When illness, death, financial loss, and other heartaches barge into our lives, we are forced to acknowledge that is always true: that we are not in control, that our life path is unpredictable, uncertain and precarious.

And just in case you are lucky enough to make it through a year with your illusions of stability intact, here come the High Holy Days! They are designed to direct our gaze to the reality of the narrow bridge. Tomorrow we will read the heartache of Hannah’s barrenness. On the second day we read of the binding of Isaac. Could there be a narrower bridge than that three-day journey to the dreaded altar?

On both days, the Untaneh Tokef portrays all of humanity passing before God for judgment one-by-one like sheep before a shepherd—as if across a narrow bridge. On either side of that span are dire fates. Who shall live and who shall die, who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by beast, who by hunger and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who shall be poor and who shall be rich. That last one we feel with special poignancy in these recessionary times.

Yom Kippur confronts us even more starkly with our vulnerability. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman writes, “We begin by wearing this white kittel Yom Kippur night. It is as if you are preparing your body for death. The rest of Yom Kippur day, you are like you’re dead—you don’t eat, you don’t drink, you don’t engage in sex.” We further detach ourselves from the material world by not wearing leather or jewelry, signs of luxury.

Then, after shaking our complacency with repeated confessions and another dose of the Untaneh Tokef, the afternoon brings us to the Avodah Service and the Jonah story. In both cases, someone is in a life-threatening, constricted space.

The High Priest, after elaborate precautions, enters the Holy of Holies. One wrong move and he’ll be struck down. He carries on his shoulders not only his own fate, but also the atonement of the nation. When he emerges, it is a moment of cathartic joy, because so much was at stake. But we can be sure that going in, he felt himself to be on a narrow bridge.

Jonah tries to flee the path of prophecy, to no avail. He ends up in the claustrophobic constriction of the great fish’s belly. There he prays, “In my trouble I called to the Lord, and God answered me; from the belly of Sheol I cried out, and You heard my voice.” The Hebrew word for trouble is tzarah, which is related to tzar, narrow. Sheol is the underworld, often viewed as a dark pit. Jonah is in the most confining of narrow places, and we are there with him.

If we pay attention to all these words and rituals, we will surely feel these are Yamim Nora·im, Days of Awe and fear. The shofar sounds its wake-up alarm, and the obscuring mists of complacency and denial pull back and reveal that we are indeed on that narrow bridge.

The Mahzor does all this not to scare us or depress us, but to motivate us. The liturgy balances judgment with mercy, divine power with God’s love. Rav Nahman urged his followers: don’t yield to fear; don’t frighten yourself. If every morning we woke up and made a mental list of all the things that could go wrong that day, all the possible dangers, we’d never get out of bed, let alone drive! So after giving us such a list, the Untaneh Tokef, in a soaring, triumphant melody, proclaims, “u-teshuvah, u-tefillah, u-tzedakah, maavirin et ro·a ha-g’zeirah.” Repentance, prayer, and righteous giving can annul the severity of the decree. Not annul the decree, but its severity. Nothing can turn that narrow bridge into the Bay Bridge…perhaps that wasn’t the best example! But there are things we can do to moderate our fears, to find the right kind of open-eyed courage, to direct our life on the right path.

Teshuvah affirms that we can change for the better, and become closer to others and to God. We are not prisoners of our nature; we are not doomed by our past. Prayer means God is near to us and we have spiritual resources to sustain us. Remember that Rav Nahman’s teaching was originally to encourage people in their struggle for spiritual growth. And tzedakah is precisely the way to widen our narrow path to include others in our journey.

We also learn from another menacing road. Gam ki eileikh b’gei tzalmavet, lo ira ra, ki Atah imadi—”Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.”

What a powerful image: the valley of the shadow of death. And where is this fearsome valley? Everywhere—because death is with us always. As T. S. Eliot wrote, “Between the idea/ And the reality/ Between the motion/ And the act/ Falls the Shadow.” And yet the Psalmist does not fear, because God is with him. God will not be a cosmic Superman to rescue us from death, but God joins us on our journey. Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his wonderful book on the twenty-third Psalm, calls our attention to the exact words of the verse: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Every life knows dark moments of loss and despair. But we can pass through those shadowed vales to a brighter place. We can and we do. One of the inspiring and heartening aspects of my work is sharing people’s journeys through dark times, and marveling at their resilience and capacity for healing and renewal.
Kushner also writes about God’s role on our journey,

Note that the Psalmist does not say that he will fear no evil because there is no such thing as evil, because everything is part of God’s plan and ultimately works out for the best. Nor does he say that he will fear no evil because he is a good person and evil befalls only people who deserve it. He says that there is evil in the world and that he is as vulnerable to it as anyone else, but that doesn’t frighten him because God is real and God is on his side.
God’s promise was never that life would be fair, that if you were a good person, illness and injury would spare you and would happen only to people who deserved it. A teacher of mine used to warn us that expecting the world to treat you fairly because you were a good person was like expecting the bull not to charge you because you were a vegetarian. God’s promise was that when we had to face the pain and unfairness of the world as we inevitably would, we would not have to face it alone, for He would be with us.

Our High Holy Day liturgy speaks this message through countless expressions of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. One example is from Psalm 27, Though my father and my mother forsake me, the Lord will gather me in, and care for me. These words are like honey sweetening our fears. We are not alone; God will take us in. And we who strive to be like God  will also aspire to sustain one another.

Tonight I’ve tried to give you a guidebook for the journey of these Ten days of Repentance. It is a passage through the valley of the shadow of death, yet illuminated by the constant promise of life. It is a narrow bridge, but we are given the tools of self-awareness, God consciousness, and community support to conquer our fears. It is an exquisite and life-giving balance of judgment and mercy.

On the one hand, our liturgy is realistic in reminding us that life is full of sorrow and loss. As David Wolpe writes about the Untaneh Tokef, “It tells us that we do not have forever. Loss is not an incidental accompaniment to life; it is life’s recurrent, urgent motif. Live with your eye on eternity and your foot fixed on the shifting sand, and forget neither one.”4

Judaism would be a cruel and infantile religion if it asked us to deny the impermanence, contingency, and risk of life. Rather it asks us to look clearly at life, and then it gives us the healing message that despite the suffering that everyone experiences, we can also know joy, holiness, and love.

If we yield to fear, we will miss those possibilities. And then there is this great paradox. If someone takes your hand, the bridge widens. When we hold out our hand to another, somehow there is room for us to stride side by side. Even that daunting prayer B’rosh Hashanah, with its list of dangers, is mitigated by our singing it—singing it!—as a community, and then our voices join with hope and even joy with u-teshuvah, u-tefillah, u-tzedakah. A kind word, a helping deed, an open hand—even asking “How are you?” and really meaning it, and taking time to hear the answer—these are all ways to dissipate fear and blunt the blade of suffering.

So look around the room. Look for familiar faces; look for unfamiliar faces. Everyone here is on our own narrow bridge. We each have our fears, our challenges, our backpack full of disappointments and hopes. And every one of us can benefit from a kind word and a helping hand, affirming that we won’t have to cross that fearful chasm alone. We each know our pain and our fears, so we know how much good an offered hand can do—how can we not reach out?

Toward the end of his wonderful book, Making Loss Matter, Rabbi David Wolpe tells a story:

One year on Yom Kippur, a woman in my congregation who had been quite sick could not attend services. Linda had been in and out of the hospital for weeks, and her prognosis was uncertain at best. It was the first time since she was an infant that she had not been in synagogue on Yom Kippur. She told me afterward that the words of the prayer kept ringing in her head. What would be her fate this year? Who will live, and who will die? Was the prayer speaking to her? Would she be here next year to return to the synagogue?

We talked for a long time. Finally I said to her, “Linda, I know you are afraid. What are you going to do with your fear?” “Well, Rabbi,” she answered, “I am going to live with the fear, and I am going to really live in spite of it.”5

May these Days of Awe give us the tools to master our fears and to heal from our losses and pain. May we find hope and joy from God. May we be God’s agents in giving support and encouragement to one another. May we find strength, and strengthen each other, to really live in spite of all we know of the world’s dangers.

Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m’od v’ha-ikkar lo l’hitpaheid k’lal. Shanah Tovah.

1 By Philologos, The Forward, February 21, 2003
2Tormented Master, p. 40.
3Making Loss Matter, p. 30.
4Making Loss Matter, p. 197
5Making Loss Matter, p. 197