Note: The following is an excerpt from Rabbi David Ingber’s High Holy Days talk last year at Romemu, a Renweal congregation on the Upper West Side.
I saw an extraordinary documentary a few months ago, “Man on Wire,” which tells the story of an outrageous act of courage, reckless abandon, cunning and creative criminality.
On Aug. 7, 1974, a young Frenchman named Philippe Petit stepped out on a wire illegally rigged between the New York World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. After dancing for nearly an hour on the wire, he was arrested, taken for psychological evaluation, and brought to jail before he was finally released.
I was very moved by the stark image of Petit alone, on a wire 1,400 feet in the air.
Watching Petit step out on to the wire in the documentary, I thought of our very human condition, balanced on a wire between life and death, birth and passing.
The lone tightrope walker intentionally confronts us with a fact of life we deny and actively resist knowing if we are to manage this living business. There he is, making obvious to one and all a fact that we try to avoid — at all cost. We will die. It is inevitable. It could be today. It could be any day.
We deny this truth, Ernst Becker, a cultural anthropologist and the author of “The Denial of Death” claims, because we wouldn’t be able to “get on” with the business of living were we aware of our absolute vulnerability. We are each of us walking along a very thin strip of life — a taut wire strung between two Metaphoric towers, suspended between two monumental realities: Behind Us Birth; Before Us Death.
The High Holidays are manifestation of that bridge, a compressed journey — a voyage from birth to death in 10 days’ time. Rosh HaShanah is all about birth, and Yom Kippur is all about death. Rosh HaShanah is Yom Harat Ha-Olam, the Day the World Is Born, and Yom Kippur is the day we rehearse for our death by wearing a shroud and by abstaining from life-affirming activities, like eating and sexuality.
“Man on Wire” grips us not only because the spectacle is extraordinary, but precisely because we intuit correctly, that we too live a life of small steps with great consequence in each one of them. We all live on that wire.
We spend our whole lives on this precarious span, often unaware that we are even on it. Then one day we wake up and see it, and we are terrified. We say to ourselves, My God, what have I been doing with my life?
Yom Kippur is a day devoted to waking us up, to placing us precisely and unflinchingly where we are all the time but deny — on the wire. It isn’t easy to face — but whether we like it or not, these Days of Awe awaken us to this awful/awesome reality.
Becker observed that while all sentient beings die, we humans are the only ones who know we will die. All of our lives, according to Becker, are an accommodation to this forbidden knowing.
We can hold it off for only so long. The game of permanence is played seriously and with everything we can muster. We build and construct, strive and plan. But none of this ultimately works or satisfies. When you realize you’re on the wire you realize we are always already one step from not being. Any moment could be our last. In the chilling air of the death-defying altitude of the high wire, our choices clarify as we realize what is at stake.
And what is at stake? Everything.
We arrive at the High Holidays every year hoping to remind ourselves that indeed we are living on a wire, and in light of that recognition, awaken ourselves to live lives that are consequential and courageous.
While the language of Yom Kippur is about God, the reality of Yom Kippur is about us — how we gather, coming together to hold one another as the wire of the year stretches, asking us to hold one another as we each step onto our own treacherous wires … as we step onto the year that lies ahead.
Asked what his strategy for traversing the wire was, Petit responded with a simple, “I take one step with full attention and each step is courageous.”
Courage is nothing more than taking one step more than you think you can.
Taking one step means having the courage to reach forward to healing instead of backward to resentment.
Taking one step means engaging in small acts of loving-kindness and spiritual practice, knowing that each and every act adds holiness to the world we live in.
Taking one step, we reach out, if only to leave an awkward message to a friend we keep thinking about but always put off calling.
Taking one step, we allow ourselves to stop fighting against who we are and what we are called to become.
Taking one step, we pick up the phone instead of isolating ourselves, asking for love, asking for help.
Each of us is on a journey; each at different points along our respective wires but our work is the same regardless: take one step, breathe one breath, open one door, forgive one person, and ask one question.
For the next 10 days, the wire awaits us and life and death are very close. It is calling us and we mustn’t resist it. Our year ahead, our journey ahead, will begin with one step.
A journey of 10 days, begins with a step. Go ahead, take one.
Rabbi David Ingber is spiritual leader of Romemu.