The Jewish Call to Build Bridges (Rosh Hashanah 5778 Morning Service, 9/21/17)

I was not sitting on a folding chair, in a crumbling college auditorium in Syracuse, watching a long succession of Power Point presentations about river clean-ups and plastic recycling plants and energy recovery from decaying food waste for the purpose of personal inspiration.  I was there to be a good mommy.  But I ended up with some inspiration as a bonus.

My younger daughter wanted me to fly up in April to see her present her senior capstone project for her Environmental Resources Engineering degree and, of course, I obliged.  The college students, wearing their best interview clothes, took turns offering, somewhat nervously but very impressively, their well-researched group proposals for real life environmental projects.

It was a long afternoon, but then, when everyone was done, it was time for a special ceremony.  The department chairman got up to thank the students, their advisors and the families, and then proceeded to explain what would follow: a ceremony to induct each senior into the Order of the Engineer.  This Order has no dues or meetings but being in the order means that you are officially part of the field of engineering, with all the privileges and responsibilities that go along with it. And along with your certificate, you receive a small, stainless steel, pinky ring that you are invited to wear throughout your career:  this pinky ring is a sign of a trained engineer.  It looks a bit like a wedding ring.  And, as my daughter captioned her insta-gram photo of her new professional accessory:  “She said Yes! . . .  to Engineering!”

It was of course a very joyous occasion.  But what really touched my heart – besides my little baby about to graduate from college, of course — was the very specific reason for the symbol of the steel ring.

The story goes back to a very hot August day in 1907 in Quebec City, Canada.  A man named Beauvais was driving a rivet into a wrought iron bridge being built over the St. Lawrence River. Its designer was a prominent engineer whose previous projects included the 2nd Avenue Bridge in New York City.  This Canadian bridge would have the distinction of being the largest and longest bridge of its kind in the world, and many eyes were upon it. What the 86 people working on bridge construction that morning didn’t know, was that a combination of personal egos, a desire to cut costs to increase profits, poor judgment and lack of professionalism had all come together to design a bridge that could not hold.  Beauvais drove his rivet into the bridge and noticed something odd – a rivet he had secured into the side of the bridge only an hour before was now split clean in half!  Why was it breaking apart?  He started to call his foreman over to take a look. But before he was able to get the foreman’s name out of his mouth, a huge explosive noise shook the air – it was so loud and reverberating that the people in the city of Quebec, 6 miles away, thought an earthquake was happening.

The entire structure and everyone working on it crashed to the bottom of the river.

It would have been a very sad day if one or two people had died as a result of human carelessness.  But of the 86 people on the bridge, 75 of them died that morning.  A structure and 75 families left forever broken.  And, as everyone looked back at what had happened to lead up to that tragic day – they found a string of sloppiness, of not living up to engineering standards, of people looking the other way or not caring, of everyone thinking ‘it’s somebody else’s problem if the bridge design isn’t properly calculated’.  It is said that some of the piping was sawed into slices and given to engineering students after this disaster (ring) – maybe looking something like this — to remind them of the enormous consequences of not taking their professional responsibility seriously. And, from that symbolic act, came the idea for the ring ceremony – the first one was at the University of Toronto in 1925.  Some say the first engineering rings were actually crafted of metal from the wreckage of the St. Lawrence River Bridge. In that day, and ours, it is a reminder that the difference between inattention to building solid bridges / and taking that responsibility seriously is the difference between death and life.

On this Rosh Hashana – on this day tradition calls Hayom Harat Olam – the day the world is created anew – BUILT anew — we need to understand that the well-being of our world depends upon the strength of our bridges – not simply our physical bridges:  But the bridges that connect each of us to others – those who are like us — and those very different from us.

It is not only engineers who are called to the life-preserving work of building bridges solidly, responsibly and well.  We are Jews, and our history teaches us terrible lessons about times when people do not feel bridged with and connected to others of different religions or cultures.  Among our own people, one need only to go back as far as WWII & the Holocaust to see the costs of societies and countries that do not teach and live the key value that every human being is the keeper – the protector – of his or her neighbor.   That every one of us is responsible for solidly fastening together our society.

(Show ring) A ring like this one reminds engineers that lack of concern and responsibility and hard work can kill.

What reminds each of us of our sacred Jewish call to build solid bridges of understanding among one another?  We may see news reports of violence or hatred against religious or racial or cultural minorities and have a visual reminder of the consequences of a world divided by the chasm of ‘us vs. them’. Some may have pictures or family mementos from generations past who were affected by religious or cultural or racial persecution and this serves as our current reminder of “Never again.”

Our tradition teaches, from very early on, that a world of peace – a world of safety – doesn’t just happen.  We have to carefully build it.

A well-known piece of Talmud – the end of the section called “Berachot” or “blessings” – contains a discussion of a line from the biblical book of Isaiah.  From Isaiah 54:  “All your children – “banayich” — shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of “banayich” – your children.  Rabbi Chanina suggests: Don’t read this biblical line as “banayich” – your children will be taught and have peace.  Read it with a tiny change: “bonayich” – your builders.  Your builders will be taught of the Lord and great shall be the peace of those who build.

Peace is not something that passively happens – peace will be created as humanity connects itself purposefully and carefully.  Jews are B’nai Shalom – Children of Peace, but ONLY through being Bonai Shalom – Builders of a peaceful world.

How?  By taking the Godly values that we learn from our tradition and applying them to our every day life – building solid bridges one human connection at a time. This upcoming 10 day period – sometimes called the Days of Awe – is a time for us to reflect – considering what changes we might make in the year ahead that will make a difference within ourselves, our families, our communities and our society-at-large. One change you might want to consider, is going an extra step to reach out in friendship, acceptance and respect to someone new or someone who is part of a community unknown to you.

  • Smile or say hello to someone who appears different from you
  • Show open and friendly curiosity about someone else’s differences rather than fear or anger
  • Spend a few minutes imagining the world through a different pair of eyes – through the eyes of someone with a different life experience
  • Learn something interesting about a different religious or cultural group
  • Support organizations that work to build peace and understanding
  • Don’t make assumptions about people based on how they appear – give people the benefit of the doubt

There is a new addition to our 8th and 9th grade YES program this year:  Our YES students – just beginning their post-B’nai Mitzvah Jewish adulthood — will be visiting a Sikh Temple and a Mosque. This is an additional component to a program that already includes a semester, ably taught by Gary Perlin, about Christianity – the religious faith our young people most often encounter in their daily lives.   Your rabbis and teachers have chosen to integrate all of this knowledge about other religions into our children’s Jewish educations because we know that being a good Jew is not about living life in a bubble – it starts with having a solid foundation in our own tradition and living it wisely, well and peacefully in a world of many other cultures, faiths and worldviews.

And this is not easy.  It takes conscious effort and, at times, doing or saying things to build those social bridges that take us outside of our familiar, comfortable territory.

“Hayom harat olam”: This is the day of the world’s birth – the world’s creation.  Our tradition compares [God creating the world as a home for people and other living things] to the Torah stories about the Israelites building the Mishkan – the holy tabernacle that the people built and carried through the desert to feel God’s presence with them as they travelled.

There are only 34 verses in the Torah describing God’s creation of our world – the home God made for us.

But it takes 100’s of Torah verses to describe the process of our building of the Mishkan – the home we made for God.  The Torah text seems to suggest that it is easier for God to create a home for humanity than it is for humanity to create a home worthy of God.

At the outset of a new year, let us each pledge ourselves to do what we can to build a world worthy of Godly values.  The Chasidic Rabbi Nachman of Bratslov taught, “Kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tsar meod”: The whole world is a very narrow bridge.  It is only as strong as the connections of compassion and respect we forge with one another.

May we make choices in the year ahead that show that we understand the consequences of shoddy societal construction. Choices that help build a world in which each of us sees God in the eyes of others regardless of background or ethnicity, age or health, sexual orientation or religion or gender. The strength of our Gesher tsar – our narrow bridge – is in our hands.