Humans Are Programmed For Synchrony (Parshat Nasso By Rabbi Zalman Lent)

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Those that live or have toured in Dublin will know of the famous landmark in the centre of the city, the Millennium Spire, which was originally planned for installation in the year 2000 but only went up in 2003! Funnily enough there is another Millennium project which was also delayed for a couple of years, a well-known bridge in London, known similarly as the Millennium Bridge. This is a steel suspension bridge which crosses the River Thames, and is located between Southwark Bridge (downstream) and Blackfriars Railway Bridge (upstream).

When the bridge opened to great fanfare in 2000, after years of planning, engineering, surveying and building, something strange happened. The first people to cross the bridge were a large group of participants in a charity walk, raising money for Save the Children, and they encountered an odd phenomenon – the bridge began swaying from side to side, much more than anyone would expect, causing people to stumble, and have to hold on to the side rails. The bridge was promptly nicknamed the Wobbly Bridge, possibly a less imposing name than the one intended for it. Wobbly Bridge was closed for repairs for two years, as engineers tried to correct this unexplainable wobble, and was eventually re-opened in 2002 after a five million pound fix.

So what happened on the bridge?

What actually happened was something the best designers and engineers had not anticipated: On the opening day 90,000 people crossed the bridge. When they all sensed the slight swaying of the bridge underfoot, they began to walk in sync, stepping slightly to one side and then slightly to the other. Under normal circumstances that would be fine, but when you have thousands of people doing that together you get a cumulative effect, which caused the elegant bridge to become a white-knuckle ride that took two years to fix. (Interestingly, this phenomenon was not unknown in the military, where the soldiers all march in step, and Albert Bridge in London even has a sign, dating from 1973, warning marching ranks of soldiers to break step while crossing, to avoid this happening. Unique here was that these people were not marching in step, they were all walking at their own pace.)

Humans are programmed for synchrony; we love and appreciate things that work together. We see great beauty in shoals of fish swimming together, in flocks of birds flying in formation, in murmurations of starlings, or in Red Arrow aerobatic displays, and the truth is that it seems unity is something hard wired into most of creation. There is certainly beauty in random motion and random colour, but random sounds makes cacophony not music, random motion looks awkward, not graceful. Let’s look at some other areas in Nature where we see the power of synchronicity:

Have you ever been in an audience after a great presentation or show? You will hear the applause starts out as disparate and haphazard, but shortly everyone begins clapping in time, thousands of people in perfect sync, and then out again. Asian fireflies can flash their lights in synchrony, so many of them that the light can be seen from a kilometre away. Cicadas go underground, and awaken together, millions of them, all at the same moment, every seventeen years! Even in the inanimate world, if you put pendulum clocks or metronomes on a non-rigid surface eventually they will all begin swinging in perfect sync.

Sadly, as humans, although we admire synchrony, and unity, we seem to constantly fight it. We do anything we can not to live in harmony and unity together. We try to be different, we try to be better than others, to take advantage of others, to enjoy goading and teasing, causing fights, rifts, ferribles and worse, instead of falling into our natural state of harmony and unity. Hence the need for the Ten Commandments we will read this Shavuot, warning us not to steal, lie, cheat, and other behaviours which lead to a lack of unity.

There is a famous verse in the section dealing with the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. When the Torah is relating that they arrived there and set up camp, it uses the word Vayichan (he camped) instead of Vayachanu (they camped). Says Rashi, this is not a typo (G-d forbid), this is G-d’s way of stressing the beauty of those singular moments, when a mass of humanity, close to three million people, men, women and children, were able to be in one place, at one time, “ke’ish Echad be’lev Echad” like one man with one heart. They were totally unified in their experience, and in their hopes, beliefs and desires. At that time they were in total accord with one another, three million souls in synchrony with their Creator and with one another.

Will this ever happen again? Sadly, despite the peace, tranquillity and fulfilment we get from living in harmony, something in the human condition pushes us to destroy it.

As we stand together in shul on Shavuot, reliving the Giving of the Torah, let’s try to relive that amazing spirit of unity too. It’s time to forget our differences and squabbles, and to piece together a harmonious tapestry of very different people in colourful harmony, synchronised together in our observance of mitzvot, and in our love of the unique and Divine gift we were granted on Shavuot – The word of Hashem, gift-wrapped in the Torah scrolls.

Because, as we saw with the Millennium “Wobbly” Bridge, when we all work together, the strangest things can happen, and together we can begin to change the world, one step at a time. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent


Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of Chabad of Ireland.



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