RH AM 2018
Rabbi Benjamin David
I’m guessing we all know at least something about the Tour De France. Maybe we know a bit of its history, its legendary route, or the cyclists from all over the world who come to compete against each other over three weeks every July.
We know a bit of the controversy. And we know the iconic names that have taken part: Eddie Merckx, the relentless Belgian who dominated in the 1960’s. There’s Miguel Indurain, the Spanish rider who won a remarkable five times in a row, and of course we all know about Lance Armstrong.
But truth be told, as we Americans pay little attention the Tour, we pay even less attention to another bike race in that part of the world, the Giro d’Italia, which is just like the Tour de France, but happens in May and is set throughout Italy.
And, like you, I can’t say I know too much about the Giro d’Italia, though riding a bike through the Italian countryside sounds lovely. But I learned more about it this past year when, in an effort to shake things up, the race organizers arranged for the start to be moved outside of Italy to a nation nearby: Israel.
It’s true. I’ll repeat it for those in the back: Israel.
This year’s race in fact held its first three stages in our beloved Homeland. For those three memorable days Israelis took a break from everything Israelis do and funneled to the streets to watch the world’s best race around alleyways and paths once traveled by our most esteemed historic figures, dating all the way back to Abraham and Sarah, neither of whom owned a bike I’m told.
And because the race was starting in Israel, the international federation gave Israel the opportunity to field its own team, which they did. For many this became a quintessential Zionist moment, a squad of young Israeli cyclists, extraordinary athletes each of them, given the chance to ride alongside the superstars of the sport.
It felt emblematic of an Israel that existed not in the margins, not an anomaly or experiment or political flashpoint, but a fully realized modern democracy. And as it turns out the Israeli team held its own, just as Israel, a tiny nation in a hostile neighborhood of the world, holds its own year after year and not just on the battlefield, but in tech, literature, agriculture, and yes sports.
The day before the Giro started, and here’s where we pedal our way to the point, the lauded Israeli team made an important stop. They went together to Yad VaShem, the Holocaust Memorial that is so much a part of the fabric of Israel, this sprawling campus that tells the story of that devastating time in our history and urges us to work to eradicate hate and prejudice in our own day.
There were speakers, prayers and at the end the team was part of a presentation granting honorary citizenship to famed Italian rider Gino Bartali, who won the Giro three times in the 50s and the Tour De France twice.
He was a special person, Gino Bartali, and I want you to know his story. I want your kids to know his story. I want you to see his story as important, as important as ever.
It goes like this:
I will begin by saying that the name Gino Bartali is less known in the cycling world today, not to mention the world beyond cycling, partially because we are losing sight of history all the time, and partially because those who truly enact change are often those whose names we too quickly forget, the writers and teachers, the lesser known leaders and preachers, the volunteers, the moms and dads who are inching our world all the time toward greater wholeness.
Gino Bartali was a cyclist but he was more than that.
He was born on July 14, 1918 in Florence. He was the third of four sons. He took a job in a cycling shop when he was thirteen and decided to try racing not long after that. He liked bikes. He liked the freedom, the speed. Is there anything more freeing after all than riding a bike?
You feel the wind. It’s enervating, taking us back to something fun and fundamental.
Bartali had a small, powerful frame. He turned pro when he was twenty-one and rose to prominence soon thereafter. In time he married his longtime sweetheart. None other than the Pope presided over the wedding; in return Bartali gave him, what else, a bike as a token of appreciation.
(There’s a joke in there somewhere. I’m sure of it).
Bartali quickly took command of the cycling scene in Europe and won on the biggest of stages. He was a star: talented, charismatic, celebrated by his countrymen and women.
He maintained this level of celebrity when the War started, a figure of national pride, especially as so many Italians were looking for hope wherever they could find it.
His status invariably afforded him some privileges and, to his credit, he chose to use his power for the good.
The atrocities being committed by the Nazis appalled him and so he took it upon himself to begin shuttling documents from his home in Florence, through Tuscany, sometimes as far away as Rome. Neither the Fascist Police nor the German authorities bothered him, especially as he wore his signature racing jersey.
He would cycle through the mountains, seemingly preparing for the next big race, but all the while working to save Jewish lives.
Bartali would bring false documents to a convent in which Jewish families were hiding. He would collect photos of them which he would bring back to a safehouse in Pisa, where fake visas were secretly being created.
In 1943 he went as far as to shelter Jews in a small compartment he personally built, a small wagon of sorts, which he then pulled through the alps to the border with Switzerland. He literally pulled them to freedom.
And later as the Holocaust reached its ugliest days, he hid a Jewish family in the cellar of his own home.
Bartali, who earned the nickname Gino the Pious, was a hero when the War finally ended. He had gone from boy to pro cyclist to symbol of all that the world no longer was: empathetic, selfless, giving.
He died in the year 2000, leaving behind his wife Adriana, their two sons, and a daughter.
This might have been a sermon on our obligation to remember always the horrors of the Holocaust. Which we must do.
It could have been a sermon on combatting anti-Semitism in our own time. Which we must do. It might have been a sermon on standing up to hate inflicted upon our fellow Jews or against any fellow human being. Which we must do.
It could have been a sermon on remembering that we are so fortunate and so blessed and it is our duty to use our privilege to help those who need help. It might have been a sermon on putting aside every title or degree or affiliation in the name of doing what’s right without apology and without exception.
Instead this is a sermon about your soul. Your soul. And here’s what I mean. Your soul has been hurt. Maybe it was hurt this past year. Maybe there’s been a lifetime of hurt. Maybe it’s because of personal disappointments that have piled up one after another. Maybe it’s because of loss. Maybe it’s because of illness that’s affected you or your family.
Maybe the hurt comes from professional hardship or spiritual challenges. Maybe there are relationships in your life that are simply not what they once were.
Or maybe your soul hurts from the relentless busy-ness and anxiety that so many live with these days, this unimaginable pace that comes with life and parenting and work and all of it in September of 2018.
For all of these reasons, and more maybe your soul is tired, or even bruised, or maybe more than that. I know it is because mine is too.
Gino Bartali also had a bruised soul. He looked out the window to see a world that ailed him. And so rather than wallow in that hurt. Rather than sulk and blame, he chose to do and he chose to do in a way that helped save lives, yes, but also, and not insignificantly, helped mend his own soul.
I would ask you what your soul needs now.
I ask this question honestly and I would encourage you to think about it honestly. What does your soul need now? Finding an answer might be hard.
As I spent time thinking about it this summer, I turned to the Talmud, that centuries-old tome of wisdom and perspective.
In one tractate we find a renowned fourth-century sage, Rava, sharing with us, all these years later, five essential questions we should be asking ourselves every day. I think these five questions might help us discern how exactly we can best feed our soul these days:
Question one: Do you deal honestly with people? Our tradition will emphasize honesty once and again: in weights and measures, in testimonies. Most of it speaks directly to how we interact with others and how we honor them by being truthful with them. At a time when truth is at a premium, we could ask not only if you are being honest with other people but with yourself?
Our texts advise after all that we are to be honest in our relationships, honest with God, and honest absolutely with ourselves.
In a world where Facebook and Instagram encourage a rosy portrait of every life experience, Rava encourages something else, telling it like it is. The pressure to put up a false front does not feed our soul but diminish it.
Question two: Have you busied yourself with procreation? For the sake of today’s PG sermon, I will argue that this is ultimately a question of legacy. How are you preparing our world for the generations to come? What are you instilling in your children? Resilience? Thoughtfulness? Creativity? Dedication?
And if your kids were to describe you in one word, what would they say? Like you, I worry about my kids’ answer to this question. What would we want them to say?
Or let’s go even further than that, how specifically will the world remember you? Which words will go on your tombstone? ‘He was always busy.’ ‘She was always stressed.’ ‘He was always looking at his phone.’ Or will it say that ‘she was kind. She was a leader.’ ‘He inspired.’
Questions three: Do you make time for Torah? This one is about learning. Are you learning and challenging yourself or are you locked in an echo chamber hashing and re-hashing what you want to be true? Do you read newspapers that challenge you or just those that conform to what you want to believe? Do you go places that scare you? Do you hang out with people whose ideas are different than yours?
And as for Torah, are you making space for Torah, those age-old words of our people that are as relevant and pressing as ever? This happens in classes, in what you read, websites you visit as a Jew, time you spend with your rabbi.
I will tell you that I meet with and/or have lunch with a large portion of you pretty regularly and not to talk Talmud per se but rather to talk about life and family and work and all of the unbridled messiness of our 21st century lives.
You name the time and place (as long as it’s not Yom Kippur) and we’ll sit and eat and talk.
The next question from Rava is: Do you hope for deliverance? Rabbi Ron Wolfson reframes this as: Do you live with hope in your heart? This is less about action and more about attitude.
Are you skeptical, jaded, judgey, or do you believe still in the prospect of a better tomorrow, a time of greater peace and understanding? Do you believe still in the very idea of good?
I do. And I do partially because of our kids, the kids of this community, and the kids of our world today. I actually believe in kids and teens now more than ever.
People come to me to complain of kids these days and millennials and I say that you should spend some time with me because I get to work with and teach kids right here who are nothing short of amazing and not just because of the grades they get or the teams they’re on, actually not at all because of that, but rather because of who they are, how they’re funny and how they’re problem solvers, how they’re inquisitive and genuine, how they’re unapologetic in their dreamy can-do point of view.
Fifth and final question: Do you seek wisdom? One colleague reframes this one as: Have you learned from your experiences? Are you allowing yourself to be changed? A year ago we sat exactly here and marked the same holiday with the same prayers.
Are you the person now that you were then? Or are you a bit more accepting? Are you a bit more emotionally generous? Are you just a little more present? Are you more forgiving than you were?
These are high holy day questions. Maybe the most important questions.
I close with a line we turn to and return to on throughout these solemn days: Elohani neshama shenatata hi thora hi, atah barata, atah yitzarta ,atah nifachta bi, v’atah mishamara bi’kirbi.
My God, the soul you have placed within me is pure, You created it, You shaped it, You breathed it into me, and You preserve it within me.
Dear God continue to guard our soul, so that every soul may know peace and comfort, health and happiness. Amen.