A beloved and well-known rabbi, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught “The whole world is a narrow bridge and the main thing is not to be afraid.”
The words are used in a popular song called, “Gesher Tzar Me-od,” meaning “A Narrow Bridge.” It is often sung with great spirit, starting slowly and building up to a strong and lively pace. Communities who consider themselves spiritual, renewal or new age truly love this teaching and this song.
On Dec. 14, 2012, a tragedy of unimaginable magnitude came crashing into our community, only 20 minutes north of my beloved Ridgefield, in Newtown. The details of the tragedy are seared into our national history — 20 innocent young children who went to school to learn, and were brutally murdered in their classrooms, a place of supposed safety and education. The six brave teachers and administrators who were murdered while protecting these precious children are now heroes, and will not be forgotten. The mother of the murderer had her life ended by her own disturbed son who took his own life after his rampage. I cannot shake the feelings of despair, sadness and terror for what the victims experienced.
The following Saturday, there was a concert of remembrance at Congregation Adath Israel, in Newtown. It was an evening to bring some measure of humanity, hope, and healing through music. Harold Geller, a resident of New Jersey, felt compelled to bring music to the Newtown synagogue, and worked his magic bringing several wonderful artists to the synagogue through his network of musicians. Rabbi Ken Chasen of Los Angeles, Ellen Allard and Noah Aronson of Mass., graciously shared their incredible talents with the community. I was grateful to share in a small way in the concert and add a few healing songs. Rabbi Shaul Praver, spiritual leader of the synagogue, led a beautiful havdala ceremony to begin the concert. Havdala means separation, and while we separate Shabbat from the weekday during the ceremony, it is a reminder that there is always hope- darkness is followed by light, weekdays look forward to Shabbat every week.
How does this relate to “A Narrow Bridge”? I’ve always loved to see these spiritual moments when you least expect it and somehow there is a profound connection between events, words, people, music, and prayer. I’ve experienced it many times in my life, and each time it takes my breath away. I enjoy noticing these connections. I call them “ sparks of the divine.”
I’ve lived in Connecticut most of my life and I’ve traveled Interstate 84 many times. I don’t take too much notice to the signs of the communities along the way unless I’m tired and hoping to see signs of towns close to mine. Driving to Newtown for the first time since the tragedy was difficult. I was full of apprehension — would I drive down the Main Street and see the piles of teddy bears, flowers and candles? It would break my heart to see that! I took the direction from my GPS and I soon saw the sign for Newtown/Sandy Hook. Oh my — that sign will never be just a sign. Just seeing it hurt — that was the exit I took according to my GPS. I didn’t know if I would be taken through Main Street or not. I just cautiously drove while feeling my breath get tighter as I got closer to the synagogue.
About a mile from the synagogue, I saw a small bridge with a sign Narrow Bridge. I couldn’t believe it — Here I was anxious about going to the synagogue to sing songs of healing to a community devastated by this tragedy, and right in front of me was the sign, Narrow Bridge. Rebbe Nachman’s teaching was clear as can be! The world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to be afraid — to cross it and go forward. I crossed the bridge and felt grateful that that teaching warmed my heart and reminded me to be brave and strong.
My dear cousin, a survivor of the Holocaust teaches me every time we speak or visit. Cantor Leopold Szneer, who experienced five concentration camp, hiding, rescue by the resistance, brutality of SS and worse, remains one of the most inspiring and devoted human beings you could ever meet — Poldy always says, “Life goes one way, forward.” After seeing the sign, “narrow bridge” on the way to the synagogue in Newtown, I also thought of Poldy, and how life goes forward — we will all go forward and with strength of spirit, prayer, music and community. The main thing is to cross the bridge and not be afraid.
The writer is cantor at Temple Shearith Israel in Ridgefield.