Saturday, April 07, 2007

Why should Jews care about a bike ride?

This May, I will join with 179 other riders in a 300-mile, 5-day ride from Jerusalem to Eilat.

Hazon/Arava Institute Ride '07


I hope that everyone reading this needs no convincing that we are currently dealing with a wide variety of extremely serious environmental concerns that will have long-lasting impact upon the planet. For me, for religion to have any meaning at all, it must be able to provide guidance in responding to such pressing issues. I believe that the Jewish tradition indeed provides a starting point. Here are three such ideas:

1. Blessings (“Brachot”). We are taught to have a moment of reflection and appreciation before and after eating, connecting ourselves with the whole process by which we are nourished -- a process which involves many people across the world and responsible care for the planet that provides our food. We are also taught to say a blessing each time we hear thunder, see an ocean, smell fresh fruit . . . in fact, our days are filled with opportunities to make a connection with the natural world around us, with awe and gratitude.

Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that "prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive;" each time we say one of these blessings can be an opportunity to take our gratitude one step further by taking responsibility. These blessings can be a call to social justice and accountability.

2. The Stories of our People. Call them the Jewish identity-myths if God-talk makes you roll your eyes, but they still contain important truths that don't get trivialized in the retelling. To give just one example: Noah's ark. The whole 2 of every species thing asserts the importance of biodiversity; building the ark and bringing on the animals is a metaphor for our responsibility to be the caretakers of that biodiversity.

Certainly, not every Jewish story sounds like something written by Greenpeace, but there are enough to fill up a Sunday School curriculum. To me, I'd prefer it if my Jewish education taught me that for centuries upon centuries, at least some of my ancestors cared enough about the environment to pass along these stories.

3. Ethics. I don't think I am speaking out of turn when I say that for all of us who were in youth group together, tikkun olam (repairing the world) is central to our understanding of why be Jewish instead of nothing at all. We care about making the world a little bit better for ourselves and for others. There are a whole medley of Jewish concepts that cover environmental issues, and they weren't invented at the first Earth Day celebration in 1970.

For example, the concept of "bal tashchit" (not senselessly wasting) demands that we weigh our pressing human needs (for comfort, security, convenience) against a larger backdrop of their impact on others and upon the planet (resource depletion, destruction of beautiful places, creation of health hazards). It isn't a stretch to think about reduce/reuse/recycle" in this context. The beauty of it, to me, is that there isn't a prescriptive answer - just an obligation to take responsibility, to be conscious that the impact of our actions is often greater than we realize - and so to act carefully and with consideration.

Now, you may be thinking at this point, all that's great, but what does it have to do with a bike ride? Well, the bicycle is a terrific, non-polluting form of transportation. Part of it, I think, is just that a whole bunch of people doing a long bike ride attracts attention - and raising awareness about environmental issues is a key concern here in Israel. Part of it, for sure, is the whole "a-thon" philosophy (can he really do it? I'd pay money to see him get on a bike for that length of time!). And, also, it's just a gimmick to bring together people who care about the environment and care about Judaism.

The thing is, though, it’s a gimmick that works: Hazon has been incredibly successful at building community among Jews with an incredible range of political and religious sensibilities. For a great number of those people, Hazon is the only “Jewish” thing in their lives.

It seems self-evident to me that Judaism ought to be concerned with the quality of the air, water, and earth in the “Holy Land.” The Hazon Arava ride is more than a means for raising awareness – and funds – for Israeli environmental issues. Because the ride brings together Israeli Jews and Arabs as well as Jordanians, Palestinians, and people from other countries, it provides an opportunity for people who care about this land to come together on an issue of mutual concern. I believe that working together to build a livable natural environment in the Middle East and fighting for environmental justice provides a key opportunity to work towards resolving the political and social problems of the region.

I’m proud of the fundraising I have done for Hazon in the past and I hope you will consider making a tax-deductible donation to the ride.

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