A Wider Bridge: My 2019 Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

How old were you when you first felt connected to the rest of the world? When were you first able to understand the civilization around you, and felt you had an important role to play?

For me, the year was 1984. I don’t mean to stir up echoes of George Orwell. But it’s true: for most of my eighth year on the planet, I became dramatically more aware of the world around me than at any other point beforehand. I was fortunate enough to attend the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, where I witnessed Carl Lewis run the 200-meter dash faster than anyone else ever had. I became a full-fledged baseball fan, collecting my first baseball cards, and embracing a team that almost made the World Series — and wouldn’t get that close again for another 32 years. I followed a presidential campaign for the first time, and saw Ronald Reagan win the largest electoral landslide in U.S. history.

I, indeed, was a child of the 1980s: A time of frizzy hair and synth-heavy pop music. A time when personal computers first made their way into classrooms. A time when MTV actually played music. A time when we thought Mr. T was cool. (I guess we weren’t all that enlightened.)

But if one thing stood out in my mind, that decade was marked by the growing contrast between the financially prosperous and the impoverished and destitute. One of the most emblematic moments of the ‘80s was a monologue in the movie Wall Street, when its villain, Gordon Gekko, unashamedly declared that “Greed is good.” Gekko wasn’t alone; corporate America thrived, sometimes at the expense of the most vulnerable in our society.

Yet, if greed was so good, the hearts of many other people were even better. Perhaps nothing symbolized this better than mass movements to help those in massive need, from starving children in Africa to our neighbors suffering from the new scourge of HIV and AIDS. I remember being glued to the television one weekend, watching concerts for LiveAid taking place around the globe.

Tonight, we begin a new year on the Jewish calendar — a new decade, in fact. 5780 is upon us, and since we have entered the ‘80s once again, it makes sense to focus our energies on one of the most iconic phrases of the 1980s: We Are The World. You’ve seen this phrase in both English and Hebrew on our promotional materials for the fall holidays. Certainly, one of our goals at this time of year is to be cognizant of our responsibilities to efforts that benefit all people, not just ourselves.

But lest you think we’re simply going to make Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur into an 80s retro-holiday, I wish to remind us tonight of another phrase involving how we see the world, this one from our Jewish tradition. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav inspired many in his lifetime as well as generations after him, most notably with his statement, “Kol HaOlam Kulo Gesher Tzar Me’ode, V’HaIkar Lo L’fachech Bo.” “The entire world is a narrow bridge, and the essence is to not be afraid.”

This phrase has been interpreted in numerous ways, but I’d like to consider it this way: Too often, we are afraid to take bold steps to improve ourselves and those around us because we resolve that the impact we’ll make is negligible. That the risks are too daunting to justify the potential rewards. That the odds of meaningful success are too narrow to justify not being afraid.

But don’t tell that to Jalandhar Nayak, a 45-year-old Indian man who spent two years single-handedly clearing a road through a mountainous area near his village to enable his sons a shorter walking path to visit him during school breaks. When local officials heard of his efforts, they agreed not only to finish the road for him, but also to pay him for the work he’d already done.

And don’t tell that to Charlotte Willner, an American woman who saw a photo of a crying immigrant toddler separated from her parents at the US-Mexico border, and created a Facebook fundraiser called “Reunite an immigrant parent with their child.” She hoped to raise around $1,500 for a Texas nonprofit that helps immigrants and refugees. She exceeded her goal — by almost $20 million.

And don’t tell that to Daniella Benitez, a 14-year-old San Diego woman, who decided to build one house per year along with the nonprofit organization, Build a Miracle. Daniella and her friends raised $16,000 needed to provide a fully furnished home with running water, electricity, beds, and showers. She plans to personally help build, paint, and furnish the homes, as well.

As you can tell from examples like these, making a large impact on one’s community or beyond doesn’t necessarily require hardships or even great risks. Mainly, it requires time, commitment, and the perspective to remember that our actions have a ripple effect far beyond our immediate bubble. Obviously, not every well-intentioned attempt to cause social change works. But we tend to stop ourselves from even trying because we perceive that the bridge is to narrow to traverse, when in reality, many of them are far wider than they appear.

As we celebrate the start of a new Jewish year and a new Jewish decade, let us make sure that the giving spirit of the 1980s will be replicated in the 5780s. Because no matter how unlikely the path may seem, it’s always wider than what we fear. “Kol HaOlam Kulo Gesher Tzar Me’ode, V’HaIkar Lo L’fachech Bo.”