24th Elul: All the world is a Narrow Bridge...
As the shofar announced the end of Yom Kippur last year who could have predicted the state of the world a year later as we look to the High Holydays in the coming days. Who would have thought that our discussion this Rosh Hashanah would be about food poverty, energy poverty, poverty. Who could have predicted an ongoing war and millions of refugees from a European country that was brutally attacked by its neighbour? We looked forward to a good summer, but not as hot or dry as this one.
It’s a crazy world and the news keeps reminding me of Ukraine. I recall the places I have visited and especially Uman, halfway between Kiev & Odessa. A year ago it was welcoming maybe a hundred thousand Jews from all over the world, coming to celebrate the Yamim Noraim. I wonder how many, this year, will make it despite President Velensky understandably urging them not to come. The Jewish pilgrims come to Uman to worship near the supposed tomb of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav.
It is all a bit unreal. Uman is a small Ukrainian town with modest houses, except for the area around the cemetery, there it a bit like Tel Aviv, with tall glass-fronted hotels and Hebrew signage announcing kosher restaurants and groceries. All for the observant pilgrims. It is unreal because almost all of the pilgrims are male, spending the High Holydays away from their families back in their home countries. Such is their piety. Yet they believe! Believe in the power of Rebbe Nachman to grant them a good year ahead.
As Progressive Jews should we mock the blind faith of the Bratzlav Chassidim or maybe feel a bit jealous as we seek hopeful signs for the future? Signs that the worrying news, on so many fronts, will not be as disastrous as the pessimists claim. Not so easy. Hopefully our attendance at High Holyday services, fuller than last year, as we return after the years of the pandemic, will give us a sense of confidence that together it is easier to face life’s worries than being alone. Maybe the memory of how we did cope during the Covid pandemic, despite so many personal losses, will re-assure us that society did not collapse and we learnt to help one another through difficult days. And, even if we cannot accept the beliefs of the pilgrims to the shrine in Uman, we can find courage in many of the Rebbe’s wise sayings, especially the one we know well: “All the world is a narrow bridge but the essential thing is not to be afraid.”
Rabbi Dr Andrew Goldstein LBC 1970 Northwood and Pinner Synagogue