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Bridges and Reeds

Rosh Hashanah Evening Aspen Jewish Congregation

Toothpicks and glue. My 6th-grade science teacher explained the assignment: Build as strong a bridge as possible using only toothpicks and glue. The bridge that supports the most weight gets an A on the project.

I was already enough of an overachieving perfectionist that my eye was on that prize. The teacher divided us into groups of three, and my group did not need any coaxing to get down to business. Our natural appetite for competition matched our confidence in our eventual victory. We analyzed our budget and then set to work acquiring materials and planning our design. Our bridge would be a work of art as well as a feat of amateur miniature civil engineering. Construction began with money to spare — eat your heart out, government contractors.

We built two bases of meticulously layered toothpicks on the cardboard foundations provided. Then we extended two lines of overlapping toothpicks between the bases, across the span. A tight layer of side-by-side toothpicks filled the space between the side beams and satisfied the teacher’s lone requirement for the project: Each bridge must be passable by toy car or else be disqualified. We used just enough glue to secure the structure without blemishing the aesthetic integrity. The Golden Gate Bridge doesn’t ooze glue from its joints and crevices, and neither would ours.

With our bridge complete, we looked around to assess the competition. We had finished first, by far, thanks to the simple elegance of our design and the ruthless efficiency of our construction team. Our friends at the next table were floundering, the poor saps. Their bridge, if you could call it that, was a chaotic mess — tohu va-vohu as it says in Genesis (1:2), “unformed and void.” It wasn’t clear if it was the product of failed execution or if they simply had no vision at all.

It began to dawn on them that they were not going to finish in the allotted time. What happened next, I can’t quite explain. Somehow, they enlisted our help. What they lacked in engineering acumen I guess they made up for in their powers of persuasion. Maybe they appealed to our sense of superiority: We master builders, being charitable, would deign to save these ragtag losers from utter humiliation. After all, they were our friends, and our hearts were not made of stone.

That said, we did ask for payment from their mock budget in return for our labor. Not that it mattered in the end, how much fake money we saved. But we were not slaves and they were not barbarians, so a day’s honest work deserved a day’s pay. It was the principle of the thing. Also, it didn’t hurt our egos that we could gloat about finishing our bridge with so much extra time and money. What money they had left was used to buy glue by the dixie-cupful, as much as they could afford.

Having finalized our terms of employment, we set to work on their bridge. Any semblance of a plan devolved into one frantic strategy: Smother the damn thing with glue. Every joint, every seam, every millimeter of every toothpick. Leave no spot unglued. We lathered, we slathered, we poured, we smeared. If the bridge looked homely before, now it had perfected the aesthetic — sloppy, malformed, derelict. Technically, a toy car could fit on it, but no sane driver would attempt such a crossing. Satisfied that we had given our best effort, we washed our hands of residual glue and of responsibility for the monstrous creation.

Time was up; let the weight testing begin. One at a time, the teacher placed each bridge across a gap between two tables and rested a pencil across each structure. He suspended small weights from a string tied to the pencil. For each bridge, he added weights an ounce at a time, until the structure failed. Bridge after mediocre bridge buckled. My team nodded to each other, sure of our superior specimen.

When our turn came, the teacher placed the weighted pencil across the middle of our bridge. It rested on a seam in our toothpick support beam. A seam we had failed to reinforce. A tiny crack formed in my confidence. The teacher started adding weights. One, two…it held fast. Three, four…like a rock. Five, six… As the teacher released the last weight, our bridge ruptured decisively at the seam. It “was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.” Sorry, that’s a quote from the Gospel of Matthew (27:51), but this failure tested my faith.

Anyway, it was a disappointing finish, but at least we had bested the rest of our class — save one group. The final contender belonged to our hapless friends, the desperate beneficiaries of my team’s earlier largesse.

The teacher placed their train wreck of a bridge in position and set the weighted pencil in place on it. He added a weight, and the bridge gave slightly, gently. Two, three…it gave a little more. Four, five, six…a pattern emerged. With each additional weight, the bridge reacted with an effortless shrug. The crack in my confidence spread. The weight that had snapped my bridge like a twig barely registered any strain on theirs. Seven, eight, nine, ten… The bridge sagged but showed no sign of weakness. The teacher ran out of weights. The bridge bent but did not break. This failure of imagination and execution had defeated our masterwork. The triumphant triumvirate grinned at us as they accepted victory and the top grade. Adding insult to injury, we knew that our eleventh-hour aid had enabled their win.

Like our bridge, we were broken. We blamed the placement of the weighted pencil. “You put it right on a seam!” we protested. Our outcry earned no sympathy from the teacher, and in our hearts we knew why. A weak seam is a structural defect, a design flaw. We had no one to blame but ourselves. That’s why we searched so desperately for someone else to blame.

* * *

The Talmud teaches: “be pliable like a reed, not rigid like a cedar tree” (BT Ta’anit 20b). I never fully understood that advice until I relived my 6th-grade memory of building toothpick bridges. We tend to glorify the cedar tree and condescend to the reed. The cedar is mighty, with a sturdy trunk and thick roots. It is a solid tree, dependable and proud. The reed is slender and flimsy and lives in the mud.

My bridge building team only had eyes for the toothpicks. They were the backbone, we thought, the foundation. Glue was an afterthought. It does a job, but it does not inspire or intimidate. It dries clear and disappears. It is forgotten. We lost that challenge — our bridge gave out — because we valued the wrong thing.

A cedar tree seems mighty until a storm shatters its trunk. A reed seems weak until you realize it weathers the same gale force that splintered the cedar. The reed bends without breaking. Like our friends’ unassuming bridge.

The difference is the glue. Reeds grow in reed beds, vast networks connected under damp soil or water. Their roots are surprisingly strong because they are linked. They survive punishing winds because they are flexible. We could learn a lot from them.

The eve of a new year is a good time to start living more like a reed. In our personal lives, are we building resilient bridges with our family, friends, and community? Do we recognize and resist becoming like the cedar, unbending and at risk of shattering our spirits and our relationships? Have we applied enough glue — have we nurtured a support network — to bear life’s heavy moments? Do we offer ourselves up as the glue to reinforce the brokenness in others?

In our political life, do we stubbornly defend our tribal affiliation against all compromise? Or do we build bridges with our opponents across common ground? Do we allow our society to fracture further into interest groups and enemies? Or can we reclaim the glue of respectful citizenship for the common good?

Finally, the lessons of reeds and bridges resonate with this congregation as well. Six years ago I gave my first Rosh Hashanah sermon from this pulpit. I spoke about the opportunities and challenges of change. The congregation was at a crossroads, having suffered deep fractures in prior years as the transition from volunteer to professional leadership lurched forward in fits and starts. Blessedly, Rollin and I were received with open hearts, and we grew and matured along with the congregation.

Now a new leadership transition presents the congregation with challenges and opportunities again. This community is diverse, with differences in age, seasonality, and geography, not to mention Jewish identity and priorities. Some won’t go past the roundabout; some won’t leave Carbondale. Some want Jewish learning; some want social justice. Some want prayer; some want schmoozing. Some want traditionalism; some want innovation. There is a time and place for them all — “for every purpose under heaven” (Kohelet 3:1) — and for every person. Everyone wants community; we all want connection. The way forward is the same as it ever was. Be flexible like a reed, not stubborn like a cedar. From the reed, learn to give without giving out. From the bridge, learn to value the invisible glue that makes for a vibrant community. Act in a spirit of abundance, not scarcity. Make room for those who engage differently than you. Celebrate their gifts. Value their perspectives, especially if they differ from yours.

Time will continue to add weights that test our bridge of community. When in doubt, or desperation, smother the damn thing with glue. Relationships — the glue of community — are a renewable and renewing resource.

May each of us, and this community, go from strength to strength — with the resilience of a reed, and the grit of a bridge that bends without breaking.

חדש ימינו כקדם Chadeish yameinu k’kedem / Renew our days as in the past. (Eichah 5:21)

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