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Searching for Myself—on a Bicycle

What follows is my Yom Kippur Morning sermon about what should truly define our lives.  Hint: it's not my triathlon medals.

Some good news for this Yom Kippur. Perhaps you have already heard this. This coming May the Giro d’Italia, the famous, although unheard of outside the cycling world, three-week Italian cycling race will begin not in Italy but in Israel. Yes, that’s right, in Israel! In fact the first day of the race will finish outside of Jerusalem’s Old City walls. Day two will travel from Haifa to Tel Aviv and then on the third day the riders will race from Beer Sheva to Eilat. And then the teams will board planes to finish out the remaining eighteen days of racing in Italy. There, the finish will be held in Vatican City. I realize that my enthusiasm and excitement about this may not be shared by everyone except a few people or even anyone, so let me offer some background and perspective—and perhaps some justification for my passion.

First of all a number of recent articles have stated that cycling is the new golf. Just look at the Peloton craze if you want some additional evidence. More and more people are taking this sport up. It seems more in keeping with our fast paced technological era than the slow game of golf. Along with triathlons, cycling’s popularity is growing in leaps and bounds each and every year. You must realize by now that your rabbi is a trendsetter. I was gluten free well before it was a thing. 21 years ago no supermarket had gluten free aisles. Back then most restaurants thought gluten free meant the food could have no sugar. And I have set other trends as well. I was bald well before Michael Jordan started shaving his head. And I of course always thought that being Jewish was cool—that is long before Madonna decided red bendles were fashionable and Jewish mysticism was fascinating. So hang on.

The Giro is like the Tour de France and is a twenty-one day race in which approximately 200 cyclists compete, racing over 2,000 miles and climbing mountains whose roads sometimes first need to be cleared of snow. Most significantly, it is watched by over 750 million people throughout the world. That is far more than our signature American event, the Super Bowl. And after this past weekend, and the accumulating evidence about concussions, we may soon be in search of a new American sport.

In addition to the more familiar Tour de France there is also a grand tour held in Spain every year. And although there is a tradition that these events occasionally begin outside of their home countries, no tour has ever started outside of Europe—until now. To be honest I am still holding my breath about what will be the Big Start in Jerusalem. A number of the teams are sponsored by Gulf States. Articles have already appeared in the European press speaking about “sport washing.” I worry that BDS (Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions) supporters might pressure tour organizers to change their plans, but thankfully I have not read about any such concerted efforts. And I actually subscribe to several cycling magazines. Teams have to start making plans, build their rosters and fashion strategies based on the course. Team Sky could very well be led by Chris Froome who I am sure you know won both this year’s Tour de France and Spain’s grand tour. And the image of him racing on his custom made Pinarello bicycle outside of Jerusalem’s Old City’s walls is almost too exciting for this cycling obsessed rabbi to imagine. Let that image be the counter point to Rosh Hashanah morning’s sermon. And just think; if your rabbi was not such a trendsetter you might not even know about this great news.

But wait, there is more. This year’s race will honor the memory of the Italian cycling legend, Gino Bartali who won the Tour de France in 1938 and 1948 and the Giro d’Italia in 1936, 1937 and 1946. In addition he won the Giro’s mountain stages a record seven times and stood on the winner’s podium over 170 times. In fact he was one of the pioneers in developing the derailer that so many of us depend on to climb hills. He accomplished these feats despite the fact that he could not compete during the most promising years of his career, those spanning World War II.

Yet it was precisely because of what he did during those years that he is being honored. It was during those years that he helped to save hundreds of Jews from the Nazis. Gino Bartali began working for the underground in September 1943 after the Germans occupied much of Italy. During this time over 10,000 Italian Jews were deported to concentration camps. 7,000 died there. His clandestine job was to smuggle false papers to help Jews hiding from the Nazis. And so Bartali rode from Florence to the outskirts of Assisi and back again, with these smuggled papers hidden in his bicycle’s frame. He convinced the Nazi soldiers guarding the road that he was on a 235-mile training ride. When he was stopped he would protest the soldiers’ efforts to examine his bicycle too closely saying that it was perfectly calibrated for maximum speed and that they should not even touch it. He rode this route at least 40 times. On other occasions he also rode to Genoa, which is 145 miles from Florence, where he would pick up money to distribute to Jewish families. (Those are some really long Strava segments.)

Florence was liberated in August 1944 so by my calculations he rode over 10,000 miles in one year’s time. His efforts helped to save some 800 Jews. It was also recently revealed that Bartali hid a Jewish family in his cellar during that painful year of the German occupation. Giorgio, then a young boy, still remembers the day the British entered Florence and he was able to leave Gino Bartali’s basement and walk the city’s streets. “I went out and saw a British soldier with the word ‘Palestine’ and the Star of David embroidered on his shoulders. (The soldier was a member of the British Army’s Jewish Brigade.) I went up to him and started to hum the Hatikvah. He heard me and spoke to me in English. I understood that we were free, thanks to Gino…”

Yad VaShem researched the details of Bartali’s story in order to determine whether the cyclist merited the designation of Hasidei Umot Ha-Olam, Righteous among the Nations, the highest honor given to those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews. To be honest, some of these more extraordinary details are debated by scholars. Nonetheless, Yad VaShem determined that Bartali deserved the designation of Righteous Among the Nations. His efforts helped to save Jewish lives. Witnesses testified to this fact. In 2013 Yad VaShem planted a tree in his honor among the forest of trees honoring these righteous gentiles. Gino Bartali did not live to see this recognition. He died in 2000. He remained humble and even secretive about his clandestine, and dangerous, wartime efforts. On one occasion, however, he offered a few words about his remarkable deeds. Bartali said, “Good is something you do, not something you talk about. Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket."

That phrase sticks with me. Some medals are pinned to your soul. I thought of that phrase the moment I returned home this summer after completing my first triathlon, proudly wearing the finisher’s medal around my neck. My daughter Shira said, “Abba, is that a participation trophy around your neck.” One of the wonders of having children is that they keep you honest. They make sure you stay true to your teachings. They remind you of when you veer. She continued, “I remember once hearing a rabbi’s sermon about how we give out too many participation trophies, about how if we get a trophy for everything we do we never learn how to lose with dignity and grace. How failing and then learning from our failures are even more important parts of life than successes and triumphs.” That rabbi was of course me. My triathlon medals are now in the closet along with all of Shira’s and Ari’s medals and trophies. I was grateful for the reminder. It’s just a race, after all.

The V’Ahavta commands us to teach our children. Lesson learned. Teaching briefly forgotten. It states: “V’shinantam l’vanecha.” This is usually translated as “You shall teach them diligently to your children.” But the Hebrew comes from the word “to repeat.” I have often wondered why it would say we are to repeat these words to our children. Repeating things are often my weakest moments of parenting, when I repeat over and over and over again to my children, “Don’t forget to… Don’t forget to…” My children then get annoyed or frustrated and more often than not the advice gets ignored. But they see what we do repeatedly. They see how we spend our time. They see how we speak to others—most especially how we speak to our own parents. It’s hard to demand respect and love if you don’t speak words of kindness to your own parents and if you don’t wrap your own arms around your own mom and dad. Do our children see their parents speak to each other with tenderness? Children carefully listen to the public pronouncements we make. Those are the greatest, if often unintended, lessons we offer. They study our lives. And they see what kind of examples we proffer. That is what they model themselves after. It is far more important what they see us do and say rather than what we tell them to do, no matter how many times we say it.

Ask this on today’s Yom Kippur. Do we lose our temper with our children, with our parents, with family and friends? I have often thought that anger is a strange thing. People frequently get angry with those they are closest to and care the most about rather than getting angry at the injustices they see in the world around them. We lose our temper with spouses, with children, with friends. We read about the injustices, the atrocities, the tragedies, and the natural disasters in the morning’s paper and then go about our day. Puerto Rico is facing a desperate situation. Rise up and get angry. But I have a schedule to keep and a job to do. And so we get angry not at our teetering world but with those we love. Better to scream at a protest rally than yell at someone we love. This past year I have in fact attended a number of rallies, mostly in support of immigrant rights. I was at JFK airport the day the travel ban was first signed and then again, with a few of my students, in the cold and rain at Battery Park attending another similar rally. I have also traveled to Washington DC in support of the State of Israel when it was under attack and as well in past years to the capital again to speak out against the genocide in Darfur.

There is great value and importance in protest. Religion is meant to fix the world not just repair our souls. Judaism calls to us, “Don’t be silent!” We should do more protesting. We must take action. The world is beset by injustices. We are commanded not to turn away, never to be a bystander. Even better we should get in our car and travel to South Huntington during the frigid days of winter and help feed the hungry and cold people (yes, people!) who are waiting along Route 110 to get picked up for a day of work. That is what Gino Bartali’s example reminds us. You should get angry at injustices. You should get out there and help. Let the world’s injustices serve as goads to action. Get angry less with family and friends. Get indignant about the world’s problems. Rise up! Protest! Direct your anger in the proper direction. And go out there and better the world. Those are the kind of medals we need pinned to our souls.

David Brooks recently authored a book in which he drew a distinction between resume values and eulogy values. Eulogy values are the character traits by which we wish to be remembered. Resume values are those that help us get the next job. They are about the career successes. They are about the added line on a biography, “Triathlete,” that my family insisted I could not add until after I completed my first triathlon. They may appear to be how we spend the better part of our days, but they should not be what define us. What medals do you want pinned to your soul? Sure I want first place. Doesn’t everyone? Does it really matter? Will I instead be thought of as honest? Will we be remembered as kind? Do we remember to say, “Thank you,” for the most ordinary of things? Will we be thought of as giving?

Do we wish to be defined by our individual pursuits and achievements or those that involve others and impact the community and world at large? Are we not only generous with our money, giving tzedakah to the many worthy organizations that uplift our lives but also generous with our time? I have been thinking about this a lot lately. As important as it is to give tzedakah, it is comparatively easier than giving our time. We open our checkbooks and send a check to an organization we support or an organization a friend asks to donate to. Do we give more than was asked of us? Do we give a little more than what we can afford? But giving of our time, this is a more challenging demand. We lead busy lives. We adhere to frenetic schedules. And I am not even talking about our kids. We have to get to the gym in the morning. We have to catch the train. We have dinner plans with friends we have not seen in years. How can we fit volunteering into our demanding days? And yet this is what will be remembered. This is what can define us. Is it our jobs that make us who we are or the time spent laboring on a volunteer board? Is it the time devoted to a synagogue, for example, that gives our lives meaning?

These organizations, which provide our lives with meaning and definition, are dependent on volunteers. I understand that most of us are hesitant to volunteer for something whose time commitment is ill defined and open-ended. How many meetings does it entail? When are the meetings? What is my expected donation? We want to know how we can fit it into our schedules. We are so busy. We have to check emails, text messages and Facebook. We have to shuttle our children to and from this activity and that. We have to work out. And I did not even mention work commitments. How can we schedule volunteering into such a harried paced existence? You should know this. Synagogues are not wholly dependent on the professionals who serve them. So thank you to our president, and our board, and to all those who volunteered before them, and to the many more who will volunteer after them. We could not do any of this without you. And to everyone, sign up to do one task, one volunteer job, in this coming year.

Ask this simple question, how can we construct lives of meaning without giving of our time to others? The time we devote to others, to our community, to our country define our lives. I know it sounds decidedly old fashioned, but I still believe it to be true. We have to figure out how to make more time for others in our busy lives. This is the good we must do. These are the medals pinned to our souls.

There really should be only one question we are asking ourselves on this Yom Kippur. What do we want pinned to our souls? Do we lead lives of honesty and integrity? Do we wish to live a life defined by hobbies and passions or by values and character? There is nothing wrong of course with being an avid cyclist or tennis player or runner or sailor or yogi or even golfer. But our devotion to sports may need some reexamination. These pursuits should not define who we really are.

Judaism demands that we work to bring a measure of good to our fractured world, that we add blessings to the community at large. This is the essence of our New Year greeting, Shanah Tovah. It is a mistranslation to wish each other “Happy New Year” at this time of year. This would imply that our goal for each other is the achievement of personal happiness and individual fulfillment. That is nice but it is not what we most hope for. It is not what the goal of our lives is meant to be. We wish each other Shanah Tovah, a good year. To be good, to lead a life devoted to goodness is a life-long pursuit. It requires as much training and as much hard work as any cycling race or any triathlon.

What are the medals we want pinned to our souls? Ask that question over and over again and then this coming year will indeed be a Shanah Tovah, a good year. It will be a year filled with doing good.