At 12:47 on May 10, 1869, the last iron spike united the Transcontinental Railroad. In a triumphant sweep, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads were brought together, two vast parts of America joined in a transportation feat that reduced six months of travel into a week-long excursion. The railroad mentally joined the relatively uncharted West with the robust and growing eastern parts of the country.
Leland Stanford performed the ritual hammering of a 17-carat gold spike that preceded the iron one in what the annals of American history call "The Ceremony of the Golden Spike". The spike was then removed for safe-keeping and now rests at Stanford University as a testament to this extraordinarily heady time in American life. All felt possible, unified and expansive. There was nothing this young, brash country could not do. The following prayer appears on one of the four sides of the spike: "May God continue the unity of our Country, as this Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world."
There's something uniquely American about this moment. It's full of pride and optimism and hubris. It inspires, and at the same time, creates an expectation of excellence and perfection that seems wholly unattainable. Ironically, Stanford actually missed the spike when he leant down in his suit to hit it, but the telegraphic service immediately typed one word that spread like wildfire: "Done."
I'm not a great speller and often find that "united" in my hand quickly becomes "untied," indicating the very opposite of its original meaning. When it is highlighted on my computer's spellcheck, it puts the mistake into sharp focus. It's a linguistic turn that expresses my own jaded feelings of what it's like to live in America right now, in the same season of the year, 147 years later.
We used to celebrate what united us. The celebrations, at least during this election year, seem to divide us, the Jewish community no less than any other. Our differences on guns and abortion, big or small government, the minimum wage and immigration have created a veritable impasse. It seems no spike, not even a golden one, can bridge this distance.
I live in a vibrant Jewish community about 16 miles from the White House. Politics is inescapable here and the subject of too many Shabbat table conversations. It seems that in Washington, D.C. even nursery school children can tell you how many delegates each candidate has. Pundits abound and multiply. Dividing lines are drawn quickly and rarely crossed. In this morning's paper, there's more on Hillary's e-mails and Donald's latest verbal assault. An image comes to mind.
It's not the spike that joined us. It's a small decorative flourish that tops the Trump family crest, no doubt a modern invention created to give an old-world patina to new-world money. A clenched fist holds a spear that rises out of the crest. It seems to be a warning. Things will get ugly. They are already ugly In contrast, to the spike and spear, Jews have an alternate symbol of strength straight out of the Hebrew Bible: the staff. Although it shares a similar base shape to the spear, its top gently slopes so that it does no damage. Unlike the spear, the staff communicates no violence. It's not a symbol of power, but of influence.
In Exodus 3, Moses told God he could not lead. God asked him one question: "What is in your hand?" In Hebrew, Moses replied with one word: a staff. In other words, whatever you have within you will enable you to lead: divine inspiration, the power of persuasion, the gift of a mission, the heartache of injustice.
A shepherd uses a staff to distinguish himself, to create height and direction. Shepherds also lead from behind to consider the terrain and weather, protect strays from predators and the flock from danger. A shepherd cannot speak the language of his flock, so shepherds must be self-reliant and comfortable being alone.
No matter, there is always God, who in Psalm 23, is also called a shepherd.
These will be long months ahead. What do you think of us in the colonies right now? I'm embarrassed. Personally, I long for the staff. I'd even make do with a spike. But then again it seems that right now, you have your own problems.