On the morning of 7 August 1974, Philippe Petit, a 25-year-old French high-wire artist performed his most daring, death-defying stunt when he stepped out onto a cable that he set up between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Petit was a street performer in Paris and an expert tightrope walker. In his teens, Petit learned about the World Trade Center construction project in New York City. Before he went to New York, however, Petit took on several other amazing tightrope challenges including a tightrope walk between the two north pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1973.
Petit spent months studying the Twin Towers. He pretended to be a construction worker in order to gain access to the roof and hid his tools and cables in the building weeks before, in preparation for the big event. He took photos, studied wind patterns and even mastered the bow and arrow in order to shoot the rope across the towers in order to fasten it to the other side. With support and assistance from many accomplices, he felt confident that this adventure would be a success.
In an interview conducted by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld in 2004, Petit was asked how it felt up on the wire. As the crowds gathered below, and the police were shouting at him through the loudspeakers, he simply lay down on the wire. “This was a calling that I have waited so long to respond to. I felt totally free. No one could touch me. I was with the birds.” That moment of freedom is something we search for our entire lives. Petit found it 3,300km in the air, but this approach will definitely not suit most people.
As we conclude the book of Shmot (Exodus) this past week, we read of the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that accompanied the Jewish people throughout their journey in the wilderness. There are various commentaries that suggest that this sanctuary was in fact built and then taken down numerous times a day to ensure that it would be ready by the due date.
The book of Exodus provides us with a blueprint for how to achieve redemption. It starts with the Children of Israel being enslaved in Egypt and ends with a scene in which the clouds of glory hover above the Tabernacle during the day and a pillar of fire by night. Just like they experienced at Mt Sinai, this moment was a redemption for all of Israel.
Our Sages explain that the path to achieving this sense of freedom can only come through consistent, repetitive hard work. It requires enormous commitment and effort. In the same way that Petit prepared for his ultimate walk for six years, and in the same way the Israelites dedicated themselves to the building of the Mishkan, we too need to invest in committing daily through our Prayers and our acts of kindness, both of which are needed now more than ever before. This week we launched two Chesed initiatives aimed at assisting and supporting those members of our community who may be in need. The first is our Chesed Pesach Packs. These are packages containing matzah, grape juice and some chocolate packed by our students. The second, Let’s Connect, will see some of our students making phone calls or writing notes to those who may be isolated or feel lonely.
Keeping our community connected
The Talmud (Shevuot 39a) teaches us Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh BaZeh, all of Israel are responsible for each other. This same lesson is reinforced in the construction of the Mishkan when Moses had to instruct the people not to bring any further donations. “Marbim Ha’Am Lehavi Midei Ha’Avodah Lamlachah”. He informs G-d that “the people are bringing more than enough for the work that is required”. They were so eager to give what they had for the benefit of the community, they had to be told to stop as they simply had too much. This is a powerful lesson, so appropriate to internalise at this point in time.
It is also interesting to look to the future and consider what lessons we can learn from next week’s portion, Vayikra. The word Vayikra (and He (G-d) called) is written with a very small aleph (final letter of the word Vayikra). There are two important lessons we can learn. The first, that we too need to hear the calling (like Petit) and respond in a positive way to support those within our community that need it. There is already so much good being done, we need to continue to be inspired to give, as the Torah states, “kol nediv libo” each according to his or her heart.
Moses, who represents the trait of humility, felt very uncomfortable about being singled out by G-d. This went against everything that Moses stood for. To reflect this sense of unease, the final letter was made smaller to make the word look more like vayikar, meaning that G-d just happened to call Moses, it wasn’t a specific call from G-d to Moses. In the same way, we must also not be concerned about who gives or how they give. Those that need it will appreciate those who give and the way in which it is given. It is the act of giving that is imperative, not the amount or the value of what is given.
The festival of Pesach, also known as Zman Cheruteinu, the time of our freedom, teaches us never to take our freedom for granted. We need to ensure that, although isolated, we as a community do not allow anyone to feel alone. We are reminded to broaden our acts of kindness and love to our family, friends and indeed the entire community.
About the author
Ronnen Grauman is the Acting Head of Jewish Life and Learning at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.