A Bissel Torah – 03/25/2020

The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the most important thing is to not be afraid.

Kol Haolam kulo, Gesher tzar me’od – VeHayikar loh l’fahed klal

I believe many of us have sung this song around a campfire, or in a Jewish retreat, at some point in our lives. The lyrics are attributed to Reb Nachman of Bretslov, one of the central figures of the Hassidic movement. This song reflects the importance of recognizing the difficulties of being a part of this world that sometimes can be a narrow, fragile, constraining bridge. Many feelings bubble up as we contemplate our lives in this world, yet the song recommends: the most important thing is not to be afraid. One may have many feelings, experiences, moods, yet the song advises against being afraid. I can think of many emotions that the song could advise against. Why can I not feel fear? It is an emotion, and sometimes it can be quite helpful, since it can make us vigilant, and force us to be more attentive.

It turns out, though, that this song is based on the writings of Reb Nachman, not his words, verbatim. In the Likutei Moharan, Reb Nachman’s beautiful book of spiritual teachings, he writes (II, 48:7):

“Know, too! A person must cross a very, very narrow bridge. The main rule is: Do not be frightened at all!”

The Hebrew expression that Reb Nachman uses in his writing is yitpahed Klal. This is a little different from the song, which uses the expression l’fahed klal. Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker calls our attention to this different version. She said: “Reb Nachman did not write, “lo l’fahed klal” “don’t be afraid at all” rather he wrote “lo yitpahed klal” which to an ear not familiar to Hebrew might not sound so different, but it makes all the difference in the world. It turns fear from an active verb to a reflective one. It says, the world is a narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to freak ourselves out. Not to “enfear”. It’s not about having no fear, rather it is about operating within the fear without letting it stop us from moving forward.” 

Reb Nachman does not advise us against a feeling, per se. Reb Nachman is advising us to not exacerbate the feeling of fear to the point that it will debilitate us, it will sack our energy, and leave us unable to see but one solution to our problems. Fear narrows even more the already narrow bridge. We feel helpless and paralyzed when we have only one solution, especially a solution that is motivated by our intensified, self-inflicted fear.

I learn from these different versions that the most important thing is to keep a cool head even as I feel an emotion as powerful as fear. I have the ability to cross the narrow bridge, as long as I can see different paths, different solutions to a problem. As we sail the uncharted waters of COVID-19, we can follow Reb Nachman’s teaching. We might be afraid (some say, we should be afraid). That fear will make us vigilant, washing our hands many times a day, observing physical distancing, making us alert to the ways in which we can diminish the effects of the virus. Yet, this does not have to be a debilitating fear.  We should not, as Rabbi Dunsker teaches us, “enfear”, or freak out completely. Fear that will help us solve a problem is a good emotion to have. Fear that will stop us from finding creative solutions is to be avoided, lest we stay stranded on that bridge.