‘Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od v’ha’ikar lo lefached klal’ – ‘All the world is a narrow bridge, but the essence is to fear naught’.
These famous words from the Chassidic Rebbe Nachman of Breslav have been rehashed time and again.
They’re the staple of youth movements, summer camps and sing-along Friday night services to the point that they have almost become trite. Still, this simple aphorism speaks to the universal human experience of existential fear and encourages us to overcome that fear. However, the fulcrum on which the verse is balanced – ‘all the world is a narrow bridge’ and ‘fear naught’, is ‘ikar’ – ‘the essence’.
The essence of something is distilled, purified, intensified. It cuts out clutter, does away with fluff, and purges the dross, as in the words of our Prophets. Getting to the heart of the matter is to find truth through restriction, through philosophical editing and spiritual discipline.
Lurianic Kabbalah, formulated during the Renaissance, in the wake of the traumatic expulsion from the Iberian pensinsula, talks about ‘tzimtzum’: the restricting of God’s Self in order to open up space for Creation. The Kabbalist Yitzchak Luria posited that the Creator concentrated Divine light and contracted it so that the Universe could emerge. In Kabbalistic and Mussar circles (a Jewish practice of virtue ethics) to this day, ‘tzimtzum’ is equally applied to human beings: sometimes we have to draw ourselves back to open up possibilities for others. In short; distilling the essence: ‘ha’ikar’. All of Creation started from an infinitesimal point of light.
The Prophet Isaiah offers us that chance to return to the ‘ikar’, the essence of things. On Shabbat Nachamu, we read Isaiah chapter 40:1-26. This chapter is always read the Shabbat after Tisha b’Av and is called ‘Nachamu’, after the first verse, ‘Nachamu, nachamu, ami’ – ‘be comforted, be comforted, My people’.
The context for this Haftarah reading is that we are done mourning the destruction of the Temple(s) and the brokenness of the world. It is time to shake off the dust and arise.
We have diminished ourselves in the darkness; now it is time to grow that tiny flame as we progress towards the High Holy Days. Haftarat Nachamu is full of tender wisdom to help us re-evaluate and cleanse our own inner lives. Moreover, we are called to ‘Bamidbar panu derech Adonai, yashru ba’aravah mesilah le’Eloheinu’ - ‘prepare a road for the Eternal through the wilderness, clear a highway in the desert for our God’. (Isaiah 40:3). We are called to create space, openness, vastness even so that we can truly do the inner work that brings our soul in connection with God.
One of the most stirring lines from the Haftarah is
‘Kol habasar chatzir v’chol chasdo ketzitz hasadeh; yavesh chatzir navel tzitz, ki ruach Adonai nashvah bo. Achen chatzir ha’am, yavesh chatzir navel tzitz, u’devar Eloheinu yakum l’olam’ – ‘All flesh is grass, and all its grace like a flower in the field; grass withers and flowers fade when God’s breath blows on them. Yes, the people are grass: grass withers and flowers fade, but our God’s word stands forever.’ (Isa. 40:4-8).
For those of us familiar with the High Holy Day liturgy will recognise the line ‘kachatzir navesh u’ch’tzitz novel’ from the Unetaneh Tokef prayer:
‘Like withered grass and like a faded blossom, like a passing shadow and like a vanishing cloud, and like blowing wind and like sprouting dust, and like a dream that will fly away. But You are Sovereign, the living and everlasting God.’
To get to the ‘ikar’, the heart of the matter is to see unparalleled greatness bound to fleeting smallness.
Isaiah doesn’t comfort us by bolstering our ego, he doesn’t flatter or indulge us. He doesn’t pander to our sense of self-importance. He doesn’t direct our gaze over the mirroring pond, like Narcissus, so that we can fall in love with our own image. On the contrary; Isaiah decries this idolatry of the self, just as he decries actual idolatry. He comforts us through another set of truths altogether: our lives are fragile, we are a ‘drop in the bucket… dust on the scale’. We ‘seem like grasshoppers’. Yet this narrow bridge we walk, needs not frighten us. We are lovingly guided across the abyss even if we stare into it. The deeper truth, the ‘ikar’ is that this delicate, precious, fleeting life of ours can be painfully beautiful and we are invited to remember that. As we start afresh after Tisha b’Av, as we ready ourselves to travel down our own ‘highway’, let us take stock.
In what way can we create moments of space, of beauty, of time, of kindness, of perspective in our lives where we trust in higher principles and deeper truths, where we peel off our armour and make ourselves vulnerable to what we love deeply and what we seek to repair? Do we dare trust reaching out to those who we’ve hurt or who’ve hurt us? To see that we are tiny flames flickering against the night and that we can grow? From where can we find that strength?
‘Bizro’o yekavetz tela’im, uv’cheiko yisa’ – ‘gathering the lambs in His arms, carrying them’. This is the ‘ikar’ that Isaiah gifts us. The tender strength to carry us on. Some of us may draw on that from God, however we understand God. Some of us may draw on our dearest relationships and deepest love. Some of us may draw on our own inner life; our resilience and openness, hope and values’. And some of us may draw on all of that.
Be what may, Isaiah provides us with a template on how we can re-evaluate what is important in our lives and what we can work on over the next seven weeks before we come together for the High Holy Days. Our narrow bridges can become broad highways, our fleeting moments offered before Eternity and our love, hope and forgiveness can break out like the dawn.
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz was born in Amsterdam. After training as a cultural anthropologist she pursued Jewish studies at Paideia in Stockholm and rabbinic studies at the Ziegler School of Rabbinics in Los Angeles and Leo Baeck College. She is the Assistant Rabbi of Sinai Synagogue in Leeds.
Image credit: Folkert Gorter