Searching for Myself—on a Bicycle

Yom Kippur Morning 5778

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 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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Rabbi Steven Moskowitz

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September 30, 2017

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