Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav[i] taught: “All the world is a very narrow bridge; the key is not to be paralyzed by fear.”
I have been on a narrow bridge. The Capilano Suspension Bridge in Vancouver, Canada is only wide enough for single file, spanning its 230 feet, hanging 460 feet above a river gorge. Not afraid of heights, I wasn’t scared when I crossed, enjoying magnificent scenery. Trusting that engineering had permitted millions to cross before me, I never considered the possibility of not arriving safely on the other side.
Our world, though, is full of less secure, narrower bridges.
When a devastating hurricane drops four feet of rain or threatens deadly winds, a person’s world can suddenly become a frighteningly narrow bridge – from security to survival, from a roof over one’s head to the peril of homelessness.
When armed white supremacists march in the thousands, people of color rightly fear for their lives. Is America a safe home?
When we hear the phrase, “Muslim ban,” America may quickly become precarious foreign land, even for a citizen.
When thousands, perhaps millions, cheer a border wall, we may ask: Why is America narrowing its bridge to the world?
When Charlottesville marchers shout, “Jews will not replace it,” American Jews wonder: “Will we have to get on a narrow bridge again, hoping to arrive safely at our next land of refuge?”
When young immigrants – who know America as their only home; and who have lived honest, productive lives in this land of opportunity – nevertheless face the prospect of deportation, they need look no further than their parents to see the narrow bridge that life in this country can be.
When a Black-majority school board is replaced by one white man, sixty years after the hard-fought but minimal desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, we may be frightened by the answer to the question: What temporal power is keeping this bridge from collapsing?
When LGBTQ Americans in many states can legally lose their jobs solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, the supports on the bridge of LGBTQ life in this country, which seemed to be strengthening, may become wobblier yet again.
When the white working class sees industry change along with culture, they wonder if the sturdy highway of their lives has become a rickety bridge.
When millions upon millions of Americans, and billions around the globe, do not have access to adequate quantities of nutritious food or to excellent medical care, living paycheck to paycheck, if there’s a paycheck at all, then the slightest unexpected misfortune can destroy the bridge of life beneath one’s feet.
When climate change is denied, even as historically devastating storms rage, Rabbi Nachman’s words seem particularly prescient: The whole world is on a very narrow bridge, between a healthy environment and global self-destruction.
We who are on this bridge – and make no mistake, we are all on it – live in fear, and not because we are afraid of heights. We know about people who have crossed these bridges in the past. Too many did fall to their deaths. We cannot be secure about the engineering of the bridge we must walk to traverse oppression.
Tonight, we have come together to push the bridges’ boundaries, to make each one less narrow, and to shore up the infrastructure.
If an undocumented immigrant links arms with a Muslim, then the Muslim is not alone when her people are maligned, and the immigrant may imagine refuge rather than deportation.
If a cisgender woman of color brings a transgender woman with her into the restroom, then the transgender woman may feel more secure in her place of vulnerability, and the person of color will know she’s not the only target of white supremacists’ slogans.
If a white working class American and a descendant of slaves share their anxieties about our nation’s future, each may build a better future with the other.
If the wealthy nations of the world, beginning with our own, will take responsibility for reducing humanity’s carbon footprint, then we may all take responsibility for defeating the climate injustice whose victims are disproportionately the poorest people on Earth.
If the person of faith and the unbeliever share the diverse sources of their comfort, perhaps we can hearten one another.
We do not know what the months and the years ahead may require of us. Perhaps churches will need to transform parish halls into sanctuaries from deportation. Perhaps a synagogue will need to shelter threatened Muslims. Every single one of us will have to decide: Am I going to collaborate with oppression? Am I going to remain silent, imagining there’s nothing I can do? Or am I going to use my body and soul, my voice and any power I have, to stand in the way of injustice?
We do know this: All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the only way to conquer fear is to emulate the Children of Israel at the Red Sea, “joining hands, marching together,” to a Land of Promise.
We do know this: In order to fight injustice, we must be disturbed by it. If we are not personally suffering, then we are obligated to summon empathy for those who are. We must know the heart of the stranger, for all of us have been strangers in one Egypt or another.
Nearly two millennia ago, the rabbis of the Talmud made a decree about those who live in a community beset by suffering, a world like our own, on a very narrow bridge. Hear now the rabbis’ teaching: “When the community is immersed in suffering, a person may not say: I will go to my home and I will eat and drink, and peace be upon you, my soul. . . Rather, a person should be distressed together with the community. . . And anyone who is distressed together with the community will merit seeing the consolation of the community.”[ii]
A task lies before us. Let me suggest that each of us seek to sit down for a meal with a person different from ourselves, a person we may not know well, a person who may be afflicted during these difficult days in ways that we are not. May we enjoy one another’s company, but let us also hear each other’s pain. Let the bread we break together also be our bread of shared affliction. Then, may we build a bridge – a strong, broad bridge – and may we be consoled, together.
Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.
[i] Unverifiable attribution.
[ii] Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 11a. Gratitude to Rabbi Paul Jacobson for pointing out the text.