The following are remarks about the Israel Ride that I delivered to Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City CA at Shabbat morning services.
Last month I was among 105 cyclists who rode from Jerusalem to Ashqelon down through the Negev to Eilat, approximately 300 miles to raise money for two very worthy organizations—the Arava Institute and Hazon. A year and a half ago I was moved by Greg Sterling’s account of his Israel Ride experience, but I pretty much put the idea on the shelf. When I started looking for an audacious goal to help me focus on getting more exercise this year, Debbie suggested resurrecting the idea of going on the Israel Ride. The ride was indeed the perfect motivator. I lost some weight, I gained some muscle, and clearly I built up some stamina.
Those were the tangible goals I set out to accomplish. The unexpected and intangible consequences, however, were at least as great if not greater. This morning I will share those with you—first some of what I have come to appreciate about Arava and Hazon. Then I’ll deal with some of the emotional and spiritual aspects of the journey.
Arava and Hazon are amazing—not only in what they each do on their own, but even more remarkably in how they seamlessly collaborate on creating these extraordinary events. Hazon has the primary responsibility for the ride. Their mission is to produce outdoor events to raise consciousness and money to support the environment. They sponsor a similar annual ride in New York and they sponsor long hikes across Israel as well. In a few weeks, in support of another of their goals, they will host a conference at Asilomar on contemporary issues of food which Debbie and I plan to attend. Their work brings people together to create an instant community where they accomplish things they could only have dreamed of accomplishing independently.
Arava’s mission is a cross cultural study of environmental issues They support the ride with many volunteer hours, but primarily they are the beneficiaries of the ride. The money we raise goes to providing scholarships for deserving students at the Institute. And what students they are! Some of you may have heard the two Arava alumni who spoke from this bema in September, and some of you may have the pleasure of meeting more alumni and students when you visit their home at Kibbutz Ketura later this month.
I was continually impressed by their dedication to the goals of Arava—improving the environment and advancing the cause of peace in the Middle East. It is impossible to say whether the dialogue of Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian students supports the environmental studies, or whether the environmental studies support the dialogue of Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian students. The fact is they have created a worthy model to be admired and hopefully imitated by other institutions if not ultimately their governments. The alumni continue their dialogue long after their studies are ended. Some have already moved into roles in their respective governments and many aspire to lead their countries in peaceful dialogues with one another. They point out that while geopolitical conversations typically run into borders, the environment—the waters, the earth, and the air—do not stop at military checkpoints. Those at Arava come to understand that the solutions they seek for environmental challenges can only be achieved through cooperation with their neighbors.
These are courageous people. All of the students have had to take a stand, often in the face of opposition from their family and friends, in order to study with people considered to be the enemy. Imagine what it takes for a Jordanian to go and study in Israel. It is not always easy, even among the students, who still have serious disagreements at times. Nonetheless, they are able to bridge their differences and come together. Often they bring their new friends home, much to the discomfort of their families—teaching their families to respect and to love their neighbors as never before.
Since they often have little or no support from their own communities many of these students are able to continue their studies at Arava only by virtue of the funds we provide. It was more than a pleasure getting to know them. It was an honor to be among a group of students, faculty, staff and fellow cyclists that had labored so greatly in support of such high ideals.
I’ve told you about the sponsor and the beneficiaries of the Israel Ride. How about the cycling itself? While riding a bike across the Negev has been done before, it’s not such a common occurrence. Like many accomplishments, this one looks very different in retrospect than it did beforehand.
When I started this quest last Spring it seemed enormous. I had never ridden more than 10 or 12 miles on a bicycle so the very thought of going 300 miles seemed almost impossible. Moreover, the idea of raising a minimum of $3,600 seemed formidable as well. In addition to these lofty goals I also had very high expectations about what the significance of the ride would be. It held great promise of providing some sort of life altering experience.
Now I look at all these superlatives with a very different perspective. For one thing, while I did go the full distance it wasn’t this giant leap for mankind, but merely an accumulation of small steps, or I should say small rotations. It was reminiscent of a lesson my father desperately tried to teach me as a youngster. Take the big task and break it up into small doable pieces. That is what I did to prepare for and accomplish this ride. For eight months I took bike rides—each one a little longer than the previous one until 12 miles eventually grew to become 60 miles, until small hills gave way to big climbs. In Israel, as challenging as some of the distances and ascents may have been, all I did was apply the lessons of my training by turning the pedals persistently until the goal was reached. When it was all over, it really didn’t seem like such an awesome feat after all.
Raising money was very much the same. Early and often I sent email to many people in my address book. One by one the donations came in—many of them from this congregation, thank you very much—and ultimately, with over $8000 raised—I became one of the top fund raisers on the ride.
As for the great cosmic epiphany I expected—there wasn’t so much one huge aha moment, but many small pin pricks of consciousness and delight. As I rode across the sometimes barren and often majestic landscape there would be moments in which I felt heightened, almost surreal awareness—how could this be real, this event that I had imagined and planned for so long?
From the tedium of watching an endless succession of highway reflectors move beneath me, to the breathtaking 45-mph descents on an open road with vast sweeping vistas—these moments were real. There were quiet moments too, when the group had spread out, when I had the entire road to myself as far as I could see. As alone as I was, with little to be heard other than the sound of my own bicycle rolling across the pavement, I would still feel secure in knowing that I was part of an amazing supportive, loving community. To be that alone and feel that connected was very sweet. These moments were real.
I have been writing a blog to capture my thoughts and recollections of this endeavor since the day I purchased my new road bike. In looking over my writings from these past months I recognize many lessons learned and questions pondered. Here is just a sampling—
- Overcoming my darkest thoughts of my chances of success
- Learning what to do for my physical well-being and taking care of myself
- Learning what to do to support my emotional wellbeing
- Learning that sometimes the struggle of going uphill actually provides satisfaction and comfort that outweighs the pain.
- Conversely, learning that the downhill experience may include speed, danger, and fear that outweighs the sense of ease and release.
- Learning to live with all of these contradictions at once.
- Learning that sometimes, what I thought would be around the next bend was nothing like what I found.
- Appreciating the very different nature of riding alone versus with one other or with a small group or with a very large group—each with its distinct benefits and liabilities.
- Taking some early, relatively small spills and learning from them how to be vigilant and avoid larger, more dangerous situations down the road.
- Learning to be in this moment and not let my mind place me in danger by taking me somewhere other than where I am.
- Learning how important it is to let go of old paradigms and habits in order to move to new ones.
- Learning that sometimes speed is the thing, and sometime taking one’s time to savor is what’s important.
- Experiencing, during the Israel Ride itself, the greatest appreciation I have ever had in my life for the notion of Shabbat rest.
With all those lessons and more, one might feel complete, sated from the experience. But even with all of that I still have lingering questions.
Some of these came up in a conversation I had with my brother, Jeff, this week. Jeff is a rabbi in Huntsville, Alabama. He was in my heart and prayers during the ride because he has brain cancer. I mention this conversation because I found it amazing that some of the spiritual issues and questions I am dealing with after my accomplishment are very similar to ones he is dealing with obviously in a deeper, more profound way, as he confronts his mortality. Questions such as:
- Did this feat (or you can read, did this life) mean anything?
- What difference did it make in the world? Did I add value?
- Did I get what I expected?
- How much did I give? Was I, am I, willing to receive?
- Do I acknowledge what I have accomplished as well as what I have not?
- And the question I started pondering even before the ride, “What comes next?”
A major event may provoke such questions, but truly these are questions we might ask ourselves at any time. Jeff and I talked about how our deeds provide context and meaning for our lives. We talked about how Judaism is all about creating opportunities to add meaning, and that we can experience this every day when we rise and marvel at the very fact that God has again breathed life back into our soul.
All of this from a bike ride!
My eight month trek resulted in modest improvements to my body. It gave me a taste of a part of Israel that I had not seen before, and it contributed to a small group of people, helping them to make an incremental impact on the environment and peace in the region. Maybe none of this is as huge as it might have seemed to me months ago, but the whole experience is truly greater than the sum of its parts. My journey, at once overwhelming and at the same time very simple, supported by my friends here and elsewhere, has been one that I will always treasure, and for which I will always be grateful.