Isaiah Berlin, Shavuot and the Rides

San Francisco, CA
Monday 17th May 2010
48th day of the omer, 5770

Dear All,

There is a notion in Jewish tradition of “hiddur mitzvah” – beautifying the mitzvah. It means something like “going above and beyond.”  Hiddur mitzvah is the beautiful table cloth for Shabbat, the flowers, the fine china; also the freshest produce from your farmer’s market or your CSA, and the time spent cooking from first principles, rather than just buying something pre-cooked.

The omer is a sort of rorschach process, in which we see in each day some reflection of our own life in the sefirot, and vice versa Hiddur mitzvah in relation to counting the omer means not merely counting – actually saying the bracha and counting each day, on the evening of the omer – but, coming back to it through the day; having a real sense of each day of the omer as distinct from each other day, and being conscious of it, and reflecting on it.  (I’d add that there is a relationship, in some sense, with the evolution of the first 49 years of your life; each is distinct and, just as the omer culminates in Shavuot, I’d argue that the first 49 years of one’s life culminates in a personal yovel, a jubilee year. More on that anon – but not in this email.) 

The process of counting the omer in this way adds texture to time, and it also more radically helps connect Pesach with Shavuot, in a genuine way. Pesach is Isaiah Berlin’s negative freedom – freedom from hunger, from oppression, from starvation. That’s what seder night is about. These are important and necessary first freedoms, and they remain ones that cannot be taken for granted, from Africa to Tibet and elsewhere, parts of our own countries not excepted.

Shavuot, after this 49-day meditation, is freedom to – freedom to make choices, to forgo personal gain, to make commitments and keep them. I was thinking about this in relation to our first-ever California Ride, which ended a week ago today at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. After being reassured, repeatedly, that this was the most perfect time of year to do the Ride, we actually ended it in rather atrocious conditions. I cycled over the Golden Gate Bridge in 40 mile-an-hour winds and driving blinding rain; I still bear the scars on my knee from a wipe-out down by the Bay, just after crossing the bridge. We had 120 participants and we stumbled into the Museum soaking wet and tired, and with one or two of our riders skirting early-stage hypothermia. I was nervously wondering what people’s mood would be, given that we had repeatedly said, “oh, come and do the Ride, you’ll have a great time.”

But of course people were in great spirits. The email below from one of our riders roughly sums it up: “This weekend has created memories that will last a lifetime for me. While the experience is still fresh, and before I pass out, I want to take this opportunity to express how fortunate I feel to have participated this magical weekend, rain and all.  As you know, this was my first Hazon experience, and so I had no idea what to expect.  No detail was overlooked in the planning of this event.  From the activities, to the food, to the accommodations, to the maps, and the list goes on and on. The collection of positive energy created by the group, the generosity, sense of camaraderie, and commitment to leaving this earth better than we found it gives one cause for hope in a world where all too often a sense of doom and despair pervades. I feel particularly blessed that I was able to spend this weekend with my son.  I thank you for the opportunity, and look forward to future Hazon events, here and in Israel. Todah rabah,”

And what I’m struck by is how under-challenged we sometimes are, nowadays, and perhaps especially in the American Jewish community. It is good that we have dayschools and camps and birthright and so on.  (And we are blessed not to face the perils that faced our grandparents and great-grandparents: who would wish to have been a Jew in Germany or Poland in the 1930s?  In the US and the UK we don’t serve in the IDF, or see our kids called to service – that’s why people listen to the news here rather differently than they do in Israel.)

But the obverse of this is being underchallenged. The reference in the email above to generosity, and a sense of camaraderie, is about people really pushing themselves – working hard, loading cars, standing in the rain, changing plans, offering help, stopping to help someone, searching for someone who missed a turn, encouraging a kid, planning, fundraising, making a minyan for someone to say kaddish. People don’t love our Rides despite the challenges; I’m increasingly persuaded that they love them at least partly because of the challenges.

So I’m grateful to everyone who staffed, crewed, rode in or sponsored someone in our first CA Ride. And I wanted to end with this final reflection: Ten years ago I was about to celebrate Shavuot in Seattle, at the start of Hazon’s Cross-USA Jewish Environmental Bike Ride. Since then Hazon has grown and flourished. These last ten years have been their own intertwined journey of freedom and commitment, and I have learned much and been blessed greatly. Thank you to everyone who has been part of this. And I wish you a happy and peaceful Shavuot. May your flowers be beautiful and your cheesecake from happy and healthy goats.

Chag sameach,



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