Connecting heaven and earth

The very height of Jerusalem's new bridge forces us to cast our eyes heavenward.

jerusalem bridge 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolismski)
jerusalem bridge 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolismski)
You round a corner on the way into Jerusalem, and suddenly it hits you: thrusting high into the sky, the new, overpowering bridge at the entrance to the city. You pause for a moment directly under it, throw your head back and look straight up. You cannot help but be overwhelmed by its sheer size and by its towering presence, and you catch your breath for an instant. But then you ask, What is it? Granted, it is a bridge to the city, but it is clearly more than that. What, if anything, is it supposed to represent? Is it an architectural abstraction, or does it actually have some meaning for us? If we give our imaginations free rein, its soaring presence could be a metaphor for the soaring Jewish soul as it enters the place of holiness that is Jerusalem. Or perhaps its bird-like shape embodies the grace and loveliness of flight, evocative of man's eternal quest to fly up from the confines of the earth to reach heights of spirituality. Does its shimmering whiteness represent the purity of the holy city? Its string-like cables - so reminiscent of the tallest bridge in the world, the Millau Viaduct in southern France - seem to bind this ascending bird to earth. If the strings were severed, would the entire massive creature float off into the heavens? Its very height - 120 meters, or close to 400 feet tall - forces us to cast our eyes heavenward, creating within us a sense of humility, subtly suggesting to us that we change our perspectives and view life not from our limited earthly range of vision but from the broader horizons of the heavens. Could all this be a symbol of the connection between heaven and earth, between the spiritual and the physical, a connection that is the essence of Judaism - and the essence of the true Jerusalem? WELL, MAYBE. It is easy to get carried away. To some people, its strings and shape suggest a gigantic, Brobdingnagian harp - the harp of King David. After all, what could be more felicitous than a harp at the entrance to the City of David? Come - it seems to say - come into the city that David loved so much, and to which he and his harp sang so eloquently: "If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand fail..." (Ps. 137: 5). It was this same harp, soothing and harmonious, that brought tranquility to the melancholy King Saul when his inner self was tormented by evil spirits (I Samuel 16:14). For the harp is the instrument of the sweet-singer of Israel, and its voice is one of spirituality and calm. The harp echoes throughout David's life. In a resonant image, the sages tell us that a harp hung over his bed, and that at midnight the wind would pluck at its strings, the music would awaken David, and he would arise from his bed and engross himself in Torah and divine worship until the morning light (Talmud Brachot 3). Jerusalem and the harp of King David: if this is what the new entrance to Jerusalem represents, they are an inspiring match. It suggests the celestial music of the spheres that rejuvenates, brings peace, and reminds us of where we come from. What could be more "Jerusalem" than this? But not everyone would agree: this striking new construction reminds some very good people of something sharply different from the harp. Because of its massive proportions, it evokes in them the image of a modern, pride-filled Tower of Babel. Through their tower, the ancients sought to dominate not only the earth, but the heavens as well (Genesis 11). See how strong a powerful are we, they said. Look at our talents and our technology, how we build a structure that is the tallest in our world. Nothing can thwart our desires, no being - and no Being - can stand in our way. We thrust a fist into the very face of heaven. We will invade the heavens and do battle with the One who dwells there, and we will vanquish Him and eliminate His dominion over us. He wishes us to live in His way: we wish to live in our own way. He demands that we worship him alone; we will worship what we please. He imposes disciplines upon us; we will live with the freedom to do as we wish when we wish, how we wish. whenever we wish. This tower will give us dominion over the world. It will demonstrate that we, and not He, are sovereigns of the universe (Midrash Tanhuma, Gen. 11). So at great cost of life and resources they build their mammoth tower in order to reach up into the heavens and destroy God Himself. BUT AS much as man resists and occasionally resents the restriction that God places upon us, He cannot be destroyed. And so God wreaks His justice upon them. They wanted to jettison God; instead, He jettisons them, and scatters them over the face of the earth, infusing them with a Babel of languages, a cacophony of sound, a confusion of tongues where no one understands what the other is saying, and where no one listens, and no one cares, and each man goes off in his own direction, creating only chaos and destruction. They become, in sum, the precursors of a mankind without God. Some might add: a precursor of contemporary mankind. To some present-day Jerusalemites, the new entrance bridge is a kind of Babel-like tower, a symbol of vain braggadocio, of national muscle-flexing, of wasted precious resources, a negation of the prophet Zechariah's outcry against a boastful "my power and my strength." What image does this new entrance to Jerusalem truly convey - the spiritual harp of David, or the arrogant Tower of Babel? Does it represent humility, soothing calm, a reaching upward to God - or does it suggest overweening pride and greed and insolence? Is it David's submission to God's will, or is it modern man's self-promotion? Is it the harmony of the harp, or the cacophony of a Babel? The answer is in the wind that rustles through its strings at night. The sound awakens us and we are confronted with choices. We can, like David, arise from our collective slumber and address ourselves to significant and even heavenly pursuits; or we can ignore the celestial music, pull the covers over our eyes, and like the Generation of the Tower, remain oblivious to the needs of those around us, concerned only with our own desires and needs, comfortable in our indolence, convinced that we and no one else are the true sovereigns of the universe. Although the entrance is technically completed, whether it is ultimately to be a Davidic harp or a Tower of Babel lies not in the vision of the architect but in the hands of those of us who reside here. It all depends on how we live our lives. In the final analysis, it will always be a work in progress - just as all of us are. The writer, presently on the editorial staff of the Encyclopedia of Mitzvot, served as rabbi in Atlanta, Georgia for forty years, is a former editor of Tradition magazine and the author of nine books.