The ancient Romans regarded bridge building as a sacred pursuit. The position of bridge builder was an important one in ancient Rome, a city which spanned the holy Tiber River and was in need of bridges to unite the city. The ancient Romans called their priest the “pontifex” which means bridge builder. The word “Pontiff” comes from this ancient Roman word. Indeed, in much of Christianity, the clergy is the bridge between G-d and the laity. Just as a bridge unites that which nature divides, so in the Roman Catholic faith the Pontiff is the person whose role it is to bring together the divine and the human.
This week in our Torah portion, we read about the ordination of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood. In Jewish life, it was the “Kohen” or priest, who was originally the bridge between the Divine and the human. The sacrifice was the means, with the priest as mediator, by which the connection between the worshiper and G-d was made. But when the Temple was destroyed the sacrifice could no longer be offered, and the priest lost his function as bridge between the Kadosh Barukh Hu and the Jewish people. It was not a person who took the Kohen’s place, but rather an act – the mitzvah. It became the performance of the mitzvah, both ethical and ritual, that would from now on bridge the gap between the Jewish people and G-d. In fact, the very word mitzvah comes from the three letter Hebrew root, tzadi-vav-tof, which means “to connect” or “to unite”.
Last Sunday evening Middy and I attended the opening of an art exhibition at St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Downers Grove. The exhibition was titled “Beyond Bridges.” It featured the works of 21 Arab, Persian and Jewish artists from 11 countries representing Islam, Christianity and Judaism. I was asked to represent the Jewish community at the event and to give some opening comments for the exhibit.
The 21 works of art on display were originally part of a larger exhibition that showcased in Paris, Cairo, London, Metz, Germany, New York City, Spokane and Portland. Through a variety of medium these artists urge us to focus on what we have in common with one another. The goal of the exhibition it to encourage us to look at ways we can honor and respect cultural and religious diversity.
It seemed fitting that this exhibit opened in our area on the week that we remembered the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of the Jewish Theological Seminary once described Dr. King’s message as “like the voice of the prophets of Israel.” Dr. King was a bridge builder. He called “for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation …… a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men.”
Coincidentally, yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel. The Nazis burned the bridges between Jews and their neighbors so that the Jewish people of Europe found themselves on an island, isolated and alone. Once isolated, “a Jew” was defined as less than human. Then they were brutally and summarily exterminated. To paraphrase Heinrich Heine, first they burned bridges, then they burned books, then they burned people.
Aaron Elster, who died this week, was a survivor of the Holocaust. He was born in Poland in 1931 and in 1942, at the age of 11, went into hiding with a Polish family for the duration of the war. In 1947 he immigrated to the United States. He settled in Chicago and became a prominent member of the Chicagoland Jewish Community. He was an active member of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and often spoke to community groups about the lessons of the Holocaust. . He also spoke to children. He said that when he told his story to children, he hoped they would take away two ideas. “First, [that] you must believe in yourself. You must trust that you are stronger and smarter than you think you are. Second….. that prejudice and intolerance against others can lead to another Holocaust. As the decision makers of tomorrow children must understand the consequences of indifference and hate. They must not be bystanders, they must always be proactive and have the courage to speak up and care.”
The stranger is one of the most vulnerable people in any society, and the Torah places a special emphasis on caring about him. According to Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud the Torah “warns against the wronging of the stranger in thirty-six places; other say, in forty-six places.” Whatever the exact number of times, the Torah is challenging us to build a future world where everybody would feel at home, and nobody would be a stranger.
Art events like “Beyond Bridges”, and all events designed to increase understanding between people of different faith and cultures, are attempts to bridge the chasm that separates us and makes us strangers to one another. In building bridges, we lay the foundation for a future where another Holocaust could never happen, to anyone.
Building bridges between faiths and between people — Can there be a greater mitzvah in life than that?