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Friday, 23 February 2018

The Consolidation of Evil sermon, Shabbat Zachor 2018

One of the things I used to love about Star Wars as a child was it very clearly defined good and evil. Darth Vader – dark and forboding, face covered by a mask, was evil. Luke Skywalker, wearing a white outfit, was good. Yes, it blurred the lines somewhat, and by the end of Return of the Jedi when Vader tried to atone for everything he had done, we understood that good people can become bad and that bad people can become good. Nonetheless, a polarized system of good and evil was clearly established. You either fought for good, or for evil. That’s very comforting, especially during childhood, because it makes the world a much easier place to live in. It makes morality a simple on/off exercise of either being righteous or being wicked.

The play Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand, ends in a similar way. In his final speech, Cyrano rallies against compromise. Cyrano didn’t see the world with nuance, he saw black and white, right and wrong. I lapped it up as a teenager, propelled as I was at the time into a confusing world. Such things were comforting. Perhaps that’s even part of the reason why Judaism appealed to me so much at that time as well. The Bible certainly contains nuance in terms of interpretation, but in terms of morality, not so much. There’s God’s way and then there’s the wrong way. You’re either for God or you’re not.

Shabbat Zachor is the epitome of that. The Shabbat before Purim, we read from two scrolls – one for the weekly Torah reading and one to read of Amalek. Remember what Amalek did to you, we read. The connection with Purim is because the Book of Esther (3:1) says that Haman was a descendant of Agag, which was the name of the King of Amalek. To quote Aish HaTorah’s commentary on this, “Haman’s desire to wipe out the Jewish people was an expression of his long-standing national tradition.” Indeed, they say that “Amalek attacked the Jews out of pure hatred – Amalek lived in a distant land and was under no imminent threat.” In other words, Jews good, Amalekites evil. It’s really a very simple system of morality.

With such a mindset, of course, one can excuse all sorts of horror because it’s done in the name of righteousness. So, ethnic cleansing – which is basically what Torah commands of the ancient Israelites as they go into the land – is seen as a righteous endeavor. The consolidation of evil into one convenient package outside of the self carries with it the potential for evil itself.  It also makes dialogue virtually impossible. Midrash tells us that when Esau was getting old he called his grandson Amalek and told him that he was unable to kill Jacob but now he entrusted the mission of exterminating them to him and to his descendants. It’s actually a disturbing story because it means that anyone descended from Amalek is immediately assumed to be a potential murderer of Jews. Politically, this has carried into modernity, with repeated references by Israeli right-wingers to Palestinians being descendants of Amalek. The consolidation of evil dehumanizes, which in turn leads to the potential acts of evil I mentioned before.

Aish HaTorah’s commentary is explicit in the difference between Jews and Amalekites. It quotes Talmud’s response to Amalek, particularly one word – Amalek happened (or in Hebrew, karcha) upon you (Deut. 25:18). It explains that word means coincidence, so Amalek is associated with randomness and subjective thought, while being a Jew means believing in absolutes. Life doesn’t happen by chance, as Amalekites think, but rather everything happens because God wills it. There are consequences to this kind of thinking. If you believe that God determines everything, then great, you’re good. But if you don’t, if you dare to think that God doesn’t control all and that sometimes bad things just happen, then even if you don’t intend to kill Israelites, you’re still basically acting or at least thinking like an Amalekite. This is taking things even further, from judging an entire people according to their deeds to know judging them by their thoughts, even if they haven’t expressed them!

Amalek therefore became the symbol of human evil in Judaism. Torah and then Talmud consolidate evil into one people who, most importantly, they felt were still amongst them. Was Haman Amalek? Was Rome Amalek? Were the Crusaders Amalek? Was Hitler Amalek? Basically, anyone who opposed Judaism was connected in their evil behavior.

I have a number of profound difficulties with this. Firstly, Judaism firmly believes in teshuvah, in returning to God, or repentance. It believes that no-one is born wicked and that everyone has free will. And yet at the same time, it holds that the descendants of Amalek not only act in certain ways, but even think in certain ways. It essentially shuts off any possibility of atonement for anyone descended from Amalek.

A second difficulty is the blatant racism of it. Sure, differing cultures around the world view the world differently, their understanding of reality and of humanity is different. But the very idea that there is one race of people who are hell-bent on evil is textbook racism. Our traditional was profoundly racist. Does that mean we’re bound to its racism? Of course not, but we have to acknowledge that millions of Jews around the world who take it literally feel that they are bound to that code of ethics and aren’t even aware that it is racism.

A third difficult with this is that it gives permission to call anyone evil. Sure, there are evil people in this world, and indeed a majority of people in one nation can be led to evil without even realizing it. We have seen this in recent history. But the idea of Amalek is insidious because it means that anyone can be accused without any potential recourse. Once someone is labeled a descendant of Amalek, there is no potential defence that they can provide for their actions. Whatever they say is an Amalekite lie.

A fourth difficulty is that over time Amalek transcended nationalism and in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox became a tool for internal Jewish intolerance. As Aish HaTorah state on their website, “in describing the actual battle with Amalek, the Torah says: "When Moses raised his hand, Israel was stronger. And when Moses lowered his hand, Amalek was stronger" (Exodus 17:11). Moses' raised hands symbolize the Jews raising their eyes heavenward in a commitment to God and Torah. "When Moses' hands are lowered" ― i.e. the Jewish people take a secular approach to life ― then we lose. It is a direct inverse proportion: Turning away from God automatically causes Amalek to rise, and vice-versa.” What do they mean by this? If you are Orthodox, you are with God. If you’re not, you’re Amalek. This isn’t an appreciation of the nuance of progressive spirituality, I read this as a declaration of non-Orthodox Jewish communities not only turning from God, but being as evil as those who would destroy us.

There is evil in the world. There is evil in this country. There are people who do evil things. There are people who were raised to be hateful and violent. We dare not deny the existence of evil. But consolidating evil and then accusing entire peoples or groups of being inherently and unchangeably evil or indeed of being descendants of evil-doers with a continued evil mission… that is a different thing. That is, perhaps, an evil thing in and of itself. I get that this country is extremely polarized at the moment, and that individuals are groups have deliberately been creating such a society for years. And I think we should call out individuals, or even organizations, that cause harm. But we must at the same time be aware of when we’re consolidating evil merely because it makes it easier for us to address a situation, because pointing the finger is far easier than the difficult discussions and compromises with people with whom we profoundly disagree that are necessary to bring about social change.

 One of the reasons I am proud to be a Reform Jew is because I am entitled to think in a modern way, and I am not theologically or philosophically bound to thinking in divisive ways that disparage entire peoples, or that can be used to basically call anyone who disagrees with me evil. Ultimately, when two sides of a profound disagreement both feel entitled to call each other Amalek, then the term ceases to have any meaningful value at all, other than to continue hatred.

So, this Shabbat Zachor, I’ll remember Amalek. Not as a hate-filled people who went out of their way to attack the Israelite people, because that literally makes no sense militarily or politically. Instead, I’ll remember Amalek as a creation of Torah, as a way of thinking about others that immediately brands them as evil, and it is that Amalek that I shall try to blot out from the face of the earth.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Why I Wish There Were a Hell

This sermon was delivered on 16th February 2018, after another massacre in a school, this time in Florida.

In my youth, I used to believe in heaven and hell. How could I not? Everything I read said that there was a heaven, and the natural corollary to heaven in Western culture is hell. I believed that when a person died they lived on in some other way. My 5-year old son said exactly that to me in the car the other day. As I became more aware of evil, I didn’t know of the Rabbinic concept of Gehinnom, a cleansing place, so I just thought that if good people go to one place, bad people must go to another. So, I essentially picked up on the idea of hell. Over time, my belief in an other-worldy hell disappeared before my belief in an other-worldly heaven did. What kept it going for a while was the old story that heaven looks just like hell, where everyone has long spoons to eat from a shared pot, but that in heaven the people use the spoons to feed each other while in hell they try to feed themselves with the impossibly long spoons, and fail. That was cute. In time, Gehinnom became a far more appealing theological position for me – the idea that except for the utterly wicked, whose souls are immediately destroyed, everyone goes through a period of cleansing before moving onto Gan Eden, the eternal, peaceful afterlife. That accorded with my understanding at the time that God is a God of love, who wants us to be righteous, who wants to share the Divine glory with us.

This week, after the mass murder in Florida, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the URJ, wrote a piece about how God cries with us over the senseless slaughter of children. I found no comfort in it. Maybe because I didn’t cry because I’m desensitized to this, as most of us are. We’re shocked and deeply saddened, and terrified for our own children, but in the face of such regular slaughter, we’ve had to at least partially numb ourselves to it. If God is a supernatural Deity, if God is conscious, does God really cry over this? If so, does God spend all day every day in tears at the senseless violence humanity inflicts on itself every single moment? Does God lament creating this world, or creating humanity?

In Parshat Noach, God becomes sick of the violence. It nauseates God.  “The Eternal saw how great was humanity’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised in the human mind was nothing but evil all the time. So the Eternal regretted that God had made humanity on earth, and God’s heart was saddened. The Eternal said, “I will blot out from the earth the people whom I created – people together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.” (Gen. 6:5-7)

We tend to view that vengeful God as antiquated, but I must admit, right now, I crave it. I need it. If there is a Supernatural Deity, part of me hopes that God is on the brink of wiping out this disgusting, failed experiment and only holding back because of a promise made to Noah to not do so again. The events of this week make me wish that there were a hell. Everyone who takes money that blinds them to act, that allows them to turn away when other people’s children are regularly slaughtered, I wish there were a hell for such people. Not Gehinnom, not a place that cleanses them of their sins and then allows them to sit next to the righteous in heaven. I wish there were a place where they suffer for eternity.

It pains me that I don’t believe in that. It pains me because it means I have to face the reality that those who sit idly by face no consequences in this world or the next. I think back to Jean Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos, in which three individuals end up in hell, which is each other. No fire and brimstone, no torture, other than each other’s company. Through that play, Sartre was trying to suggest that other people are our own hell, that essentially hell can be here on earth, but I can’t agree. I don’t think the people who deserve hell even give a damn. I think they are mentally impervious to this. I think their lust for power at all cost totally blinds them to this repetitive suffering. And moreover, they know that many of them are still likely to hold onto power even when the masses have a chance to change the political landscape. They are immune from hell, especially the hell that others have to go through because of their own inaction, and knowing that makes me nauseous.  I yearn for Divine justice and none comes.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read of the Israelites building the Sanctuary so that God may dwell among them. After the Tabernacle, the Temple was built to house God’s Presence. That was destroyed and then the Second Temple brought God’s Presence among the people once more. Since that was destroyed, God’s immediate Presence has not been with humanity. I would suggest that until the wholesale and repetitive slaughter of people, particularly children, is ended in our society, it would be impossible for God to dwell among us. I would go so far as to say that it would be offensive for us to suggest that God could currently dwell among us, or would even want to.  I understand that this may not be comforting for some, like those who find Rabbi Jacob’s notion of God crying over this tragedy comforting. But I can’t find comfort now. I’m not comforted when every day I drop my kids off at school and kiss them and tell them that I love them just in case it’s the last time I ever see them alive. There’s no comfort there. I can’t be comforted now. I can’t think that God dwells among us while we do nothing about this.

And I know that my wish for an eternity of visceral, tormenting hell for some individuals is an expression of my own anger, frustration and pain. I understand that. But I also understand that it is a convenient avoidance of my responsibility in this, too. Sure, I have spoken about the differing forms of violence endemic in this society to raise awareness and to slowly change society. But I’ve not yet called an elected official to try to make real political change. I’ve not yet supported any organization – like the ones whose details you can find on the table at the back of the Sanctuary – that is trying to bring about real change and stop these constant massacres. So if there were a hell, maybe I would deserve it, too. Maybe all of us who sit idly by and shake our heads and hug our kids and do nothing to stop the next massacre, maybe all of us deserve it, too. Maybe that realization, in and of itself, will be enough to bring about change in me, and perhaps in others, too, so that we might finally act. Or do we have to wait until, God forbid, we experience the true hell of this regular culling of children affecting  the ones we love?

Some of my Rabbinic colleagues have responded to the latest atrocity with poetry. Some have created new versions of the Kaddish to express their grief. I would rather not. I can’t currently look at this tragedy and immediately spring into a prayer praising God for life, as Kaddish does. Ashamnu, however, the prayer for begging for our sins, seems far more appropriate to me, so here’s my version this week:

We have sinned. We have permitted murder. We have accepted murder. We have tolerated murder. We have politicized murder. We have stood idly over the blood of our neighbor’s children, and of their neighbor’s children, and of their neighbor’s children, and of their neighbor’s children, all the while praying that our own would be spared of violence. We have called on the Divine for mercy when we showed none ourselves.  We have prevaricated. We have hidden our consciences and numbed our souls. We have ignored the cries of our society’s children’s blood that calls to us from the ground. We have shaken our heads and failed to act. We have been callous. We have tolerated violence throughout our society and have profited from it. We have succumbed to cynicism and defeat.

For all these failures of judgment and will, we will ask for forgiveness, but only once we have done everything in our power to end the slaughter of innocents in our society. For that, we pray only for strength. (And let us say, amen)

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Preparing for Yom Kippur: Some Handy Hints

In preparation for Yom Kippur, here are some handy hints that might make the day more meaningful to you:

1) If you're fasting, start minimising your food now. Many people think that the best way to fast is to fill themselves with a ridiculously large meal just before it starts. That is, in fact, probably the worst way to fast. When you stuff yourself silly, you expand your stomach lining and then you'll feel really hungry the next day. So, I always try to minimise my food intake in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Also, try to avoid salty food because that will make you thirsty. This year, Yom Kippur is quite late in the year so the fast comes in and goes out earlier. That's a good thing. Once you wake up in the morning, you really don't have long left in the fast. That said, it's always better mentally to count the number of hours you have already fasted and not to think about the number of hours left. Mentally, we are lifted by our success and counting down feels much longer.

2) If you're not fasting, there is a special prayer that can be recited. People who are ill, pregnant or elderly should not force themselves to fast (Yoma 82b-83a). Pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life, is essential. Yes, Torah says (Lev. 16:29-31, Num. 29:7) that on Yom Kippur we should "afflict our souls" and yes, the Rabbis very clearly define how to afflict our souls, but that affliction should not lead to harm. The idea of fasting is to elevate us beyond our physical selves so that we can be more like angels (who don't eat). It's not angelic if you're writhing in pain, or dizzy, or faint. Religion should be lived.

3) The traditional interpretation of "afflict" covers five things. The Mishnah (Yoma 8:1) says that it means (i) no eating or drinking (ii) no bathing (iii) no anointing, (iv) no leather shoes (v) no sexual intercourse (especially not in the synagogue, please!!!). The Talmud (Yoma 74b) suggests that this means abstention and not torture, and suggests this means through hunger. In fact, there's something very important about not anointing as well - people who are fasting may not have taken anti-allergy medication and if they are allergic to your perfume or deodorant, they could become very ill. 

4) There is a lot of liturgy on Yom Kippur. The idea of a minyan is that at least one person is saying the prayers at the right time. You're meant to dip in and out mentally. Our machzor has three kinds of pages - white, grey and blue. White pages are mainly where the prayer leader will be, the traditional prayers. Gray pages are creative translations. Blue pages are related study passages. If a prayer on a white page isn't moving you, look at a grey or blue page and see if that's powerful.

5) Many people become despondent over Yom Kippur because they feel that they're apologising for things that they know they're just going to repeat next year. Instead of trying to change your entire personality, just focus on one thing. Don't promise to never do it again but spend the day thinking of ways you might minimise seeing that negative character trait. If you get angry often, for example, work out what triggers that and think up mechanisms that will minimise those triggers.

I hope that these help make your Yom Kippur moving.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016


We arrived at the hotel fairly late on Saturday evening. The woman in front of me at the desk was turned away because they didn't have any rooms. I got to the desk and they looked for my reservation but couldn't find it. In horror, I realised that I had booked myself for the tour but never got round to booking my hotel room. Ben and Bev, always wonderful people, offered for me to sleep in their room, but that wasn't fair. Thankfully, somehow, they found me a double room but just charged me a single rate. I was very lucky.

All day I had been wearing the left knee brace. Those who have been following this blog will know that my left knee has been causing serious problems. A couple of weeks ago, I realised that there must be a connecting reason why I've had left-knee pain for a number of years. There I was standing in services leading the Amidah when I realised that my left leg was longer than my right. It was like an epiphany! But I didn't have time to deal with it before the ride, so I just had to support it as best I could. I peeled the brace off after having worn it for 10 hours. The knee started throbbing again. I got my things ready for the morning, took a plastic bag, filled it with ice and then lay on the bed watching Anchorman for an hour. An hour later, I accidentally poured half the melted ice onto the bed but my knee pain had gone. I was ready.

I attached my number to my jersey. I was the fourth person to book my place on the tour - I just wasn't smart enough to book the hotel room, too! I filled the back pockets. The left-hand pocket had a pack of Trader Joe's Mango Slices. The middle pocket held my keys and a number of bars, as well as more pain medication than I could possibly take in a day. The right-hand pocket held my phone.

Recently, I had bought a container for the bike. Members of the community had lent me some saddlebags but they were too unwieldy so I needed something smaller. This held sandwiches and bars all under the main frame of the bicycle. It was the perfect purchase.

I had prepared three PB&J sandwiches, and had one along with a number of other snacks. I didn't want to have a heavy breakfast and I have found that, despite it not being very healthy, if I'm going on a long ride it's good to eat late the night before. But I was up later than I had planned and ended up only getting 5 hours of sleep.

Ben and I got on our bikes while the Moon was still the main light source. We went to the tent to get our ankle timing bracelets, although that was useless because we planned to leave early. Ben gave a special prayer asking for protection for our bicycles and for us. I went to the toilet a number of times while Ben patiently waited. I was clearly nervous.

At 06:45, we set off. We had travelled perhaps a third of a mile before we realised we had no idea where we were going. Thankfully, the organisers had marked the road, so we followed their markings. The first ten miles went by very quickly, and we stopped for a chat and refreshments at the first stop. Then there was an extraordinary whooshing noise as the peleton, which had left 15 minutes after us, caught up....

These were really serious riders. They were FAST. I told the people at the water station that they were show-offs and that we were deciding to let them go past us! I honestly couldn't imagine cycling that fast, but it was nice to know that we led for the first ten miles, even if we did leave much earlier than everyone else!

Twenty miles went by nicely with a good number of the nearly 400 cyclists passing us. This wasn't a race for us, this was a long-distance clergy and friend conversation while fundraising.

People had said that the Tour was a beautiful ride, and they weren't kidding. The scenery was stunning, especially bathed in the morning light. At some point in the first twenty miles (possibly just before the 10-mile stop), I remember chanting the first paragraph of Sh'ma as the sun came up. It was really moving for me that both of us had infused this ride with spirituality. Ben then talked about his morning spiritual routine and the perfect clergy conversation ensued.

But we both knew what was coming after twenty miles.... the hill...

You can see on this picture the road head up the grade 4 climb, go right and then all the way up left. That's a 1-mile grade 4 climb. And I loved it! I kept stopping to try to take photos of the view (none of which came out very well), which turned out to be really stupid because starting a bike with clips up a hill is extremely difficult. But getting to the top of that climb felt amazing, and we knew that the worst was now over. Now it was all about distance. And we started racking up the miles...

I won't go into the conversations themselves, but by the 50-mile marker, it's fair to say that it was clear that we were sharing a very special day. We would stop not just for refreshments - Ben insisted that the best way to do a century is to never refuse a refill and a chance to stretch the legs - but we would stop to marvel at the beautiful surroundings. One very special moment had us just standing together next to an enormous rocky outcrop, listening to the silence. Another moment had us cycling past a half-eaten coyote corpse and discussing what that meant to us. We even discussed deeper philosophical questions such as whether the world is getting better or worse, whether we need it to get better, and so on. Not your usual bicycle century conversation. But that was the plan all along - when I invited Ben to join me, I had invited him to a day of meaningful conversation with three caveats - that it was on September 18th, in Acoma and on bicycles.

The beautiful scenery continued throughout...

I had been warned about the quality of the road surface - you may remember that from one of the earliest posts. The warning was absolutely right - some of the road was horrible to cycle on. Had the view not been so stunning, it would have made for a very unhappy ride. The disturbing number of cattle grates made it even harder, especially the ones at the end once everything had started to ache.

As much as Ben wanted to stop for refreshments, I wanted to stop for photographs and then posting immediately on social media. Sometimes I gave distance updates, sometimes it was just photos of wonderful things we had seen. I don't even know what's going on in this rock, but it was so extraordinary that I needed to take a photo...

Six and a half hours in, we reached the 70-mile marker. Now we were starting to flag. Despite applying copious amounts of sun screen, my arms were beginning to peel. It was actually rather disturbing watching that unfold. My right-foot was starting to hurt and Ben's foot was starting to cramp. My butt was sore, but nowhere near as much as in previous rides. My left knee, extraordinarily, was pain free. We were doing okay.
After just over 8 hours, we passed an important point for me - 90 miles was the furthest that I had ever cycled. I couldn't believe how much energy I still had left in me. I could cycle another 50 miles (although that would probably have upset my sponsors somewhat!).

We had to brave some more cattle grates and bumpy roads before reaching the end, but reach it we did. The Tour had said that they would withdraw road support after many hours so we couldn't stop at the final water station because it had gone! I'm glad we left early. I had really been hoping that Ben and I would cross the finish line together but when we were funneled through some cones and there was a beep from my ankle bracelet, I turned back and said to him, "Wait! Was that the line?" It was. That was a shame. Nonetheless, it wasn't about the ending so much as the journey. For 8 hours and 53 minutes, Ben and I had gone on a wonderful journey together and we had raised over $20,000 for the important work of Temple Beth Shalom.

The end of this post is an important list of people I want to thank. Firstly, I want to thank Ben for accompanying me on this huge journey. Not only is Ben a clergy colleague, but I feel confident in saying he is a friend for life. I learned about myself on the ride and about him, about my own Judaism and about Lutheranism. I would never have done it without him.

I also want to thank Neil Lyon from Temple Beth Shalom. When I arrived in Santa Fe two years ago and Neil learned that I like to ride, he's been itching to get me to ride with him. At first, I was going to do the Santa Fe Century but couldn't. Then I was going to do last year's Tour de Acoma, but a triple hernia problem prevented me. Then another Santa Fe Century went by without me training. All the while, Neil patiently waited and encouraged me. He helped me plan this ride, he supported me throughout all my training, he lent me some amazing cycling shorts, he stroked my bottom when it was sore (!). Every time I went for a ride, I posted him my time and he encouraged me further. He gave me food advice, training advice, everything advice. This fundraiser would never have been possible without the patience and generosity of Neil.

I want to thank Rich Cook for the crucial 65-mile ride last week and also David and Brenda Jaffe for the essential encouragement and ride they accompanied me on a number of weeks ago. I know that there were some members who had hoped to train with me but couldn't because of my weird training times, but I thank them, too, for showing me support in other ways.

Thank you to Penny Zuchlag for lending me the bike. The difference between the cross bike and the road bike was simple enormous and Penny has opened my eyes to a new way of cycling. Thank you to the people at New Mexico Bike and Sport, particularly Ray, who have been so helpful in getting me the right gear, measuring me and ensuring that I did this without injury.

Thank you to Rebecca Baran-Rees in particular for helping organise the sponsorship, and to Amy and Dorothea for their admin support. And thank you, of course, to every single one of my sponsors. Without you, I would not have done this. Truly. There was one day during the training when I was going to give up but couldn't because of your belief in me. The money that you have helped raise will fund many world-changing activities at Temple Beth Shalom.

So.... what now? Well, I'm thinking that next year I should see what is the fastest time I can complete the century in, and I'm thinking we should run a sweepstake for a bit of fun.

Thank you again, everyone.

Saturday, 17 September 2016


Here we are, then! Tomorrow is the big day. And I'm terrified, actually. Let me explain why...

Last Sunday was an amazing day of cycling. I was joined by Rich Cook and told him that I hoped to do at least 70 miles, possibly 80 if I could. We set off early and the riding was good. It truly does make a difference when there's someone else to cycle with. Rich had to finish riding after 65 miles, which we completed in an excellent time. The first 20 miles we cycled in 1h23, which is only 4 minutes behind my PB. I wasn't trying to rush, we were just going at a good pace. We finished the next 20 miles in 2h52 but it wasn't without incident. In New Mexico, we have things called Sharrows. A Sharrow is a sharing arrow (see pic above). It's used in narrow roads where there isn't enough room to overtake cyclists. But New Mexico drivers don't care about that and as I was going down a fast and narrow hill someone decided to overtake me. He didn't care that there was oncoming traffic so he overtook me very, very close. It was the closest I've had to being hit by a car in a very long time.

We completed 60 miles after 4h40 and Rich had to stop after 65. We had stopped only occasionally for the butt pain which was far better than in previous weeks. Maybe it just helps having company and not focussing on the butt. I pressed on - 70 miles in 5h34 and then I went as far as 80 miles in 6h31.

I had forgotten my sun cream/screen but thought that I was getting a nice tan. It turns out that was a serious mistake and I can still feel the burn (not 'feel the bern'!) a week later. At least I've remembered to bring it with me for tomorrow's ride. 

What was enormously helpful was the breaks. I was able to stock up on snacks and sandwiches and leave them by our mailbox. Then we could cycle twenty miles and I could stop and eat a PB&J sandwich, which is apparently the best thing for you. But there will be no sandwiches on the ride - they'll be dishing out water, orange juice and bananas and that's it. That might be a problem. I've made sandwiches and I'll stuff them in pockets along the bike but a day old they may be rather horrible. Still, water will be more important than food, because it's going to be 88 degrees!!!! My hottest training was in 75 degrees but this is going to be more than 10 degrees hotter. I always said that heat could be the biggest problem. 

And because of family illness, I've not been able to train since last Sunday. I know that a couple of days of rest is important before a ride but this is different - I've not cycled in a week. And perhaps because of that, my muscles have started straining and, most importantly, my left knee is back to hurting again. It hurts so badly that I've got it in a knee brace right now. I can't cycle in the brace because it's too tight for cycling, but I am in real amounts of pain.

This ride is going to take everything I've got. People at the Temple joke about the amount I've raised in pledges "....if you finish...!" It's a real question, actually. I really want to in order to raise around $20,000 for the Temple and the really important work that we do. But I'll just take it one mile at a time and see what happens.

Someone realised that what we should have done is raise pledges and then run a sweepstake on which mile I end up stopping on. Yes, I've now done 80 miles so the received wisdom is that I should be able to complete 100, but there are differences - less food, much higher temperature and no practice for a week. We will see how this goes...

There is still time to sponsor me. To do that, please please go to https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/655G575.

Thank you.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

The Big Push

Revd Ben Larzelere, the person riding with me in Acoma, said that if you pass the magic 500 miles training then you'll be able to ride 100 miles in a day. I'm not convinced. Until last Sunday, the furthest I had gone was 40 miles. I needed to get beyond 50 miles, possibly 60. 

I set off early. The first twenty miles went well but after 2 hours and 20 minutes of cycling, at around 30 miles, I had to get off the bike. The butt pain was back. I decided to keep going but 15 minutes later I had to stop again. These twenty mile loops were very helpful. I head out from my house near Old Santa Fe Trail, head to Harry's Roadhouse, turn left and head towards Eldorado. Once I get to Spin Docs I turn around and head along the long road back towards Santa Fe, turn right and head up and then down the hill to Kaune's, turn around and head back up the very steep hill, before heading up the slow hill of Old Santa Fe Trail and back to my home. It's exactly 20 miles in a loop that covers 900 feet of altitude. So, three loops of 60 miles also means climbing (and descending) three sets of 900 feet, which is 2700 feet. That's the kind of preparation I need.

I decided not to rush. The first lap was finished in 1 hour 28, the second another 1 hour 36 later. But I was getting slower and was in pain. I didn't just stop at 2 hours 19 and 2 hours 44, but also 3 hours and 49, 4 hours, 4 hours 12 and 4 hours 34. That's a lot of stopping and a lot of pain. But after each 20 mile lap I would stop and take a snack that I had left in my mailbox. That worked well until Asher saw me snacking from them and, when I was on my second lap, he decided to raid the snacks. Thankfully, Jenny was home and was able to quickly rush down a PB&J sandwich (that's peanut butter and jelly/jam, for the non-Americans) to me.

I finished the 60 miles, including stops, in 4 hours and 55 minutes. At that rate, I'll finish the Tour de Acoma in just about 8 hours and 20 minutes at an average of 12mph. That's really not very quick, but at least it'll finish.

There's only one way to be sure that I could finish this - I need to do 70 or 80 miles, and I need to do it tomorrow. I've decided to remove the new saddle and to use the special super-comfy cross-bike saddle. At Bike and Sport they said that that might not be a good idea because it won't be good for my knees, but if I can't sit on the seat then what can I do? So I decided to take off the saddle and change it, except I came across a problem - I can't undo it. They've tightened it so much that I simply can't undo it. So, it looks like I'm going to be trying to ride 80 miles on a seat that I know isn't comfortable. That's not good. Thankfully, Rich Cook from the community has offered to join me. I'd like to see whether having company will take my mind off my tusch.

This is the last big ride before the ride itself. If I can do 70 or 80 miles then I'll be in good standing. But if I don't - if I struggle - then I'm going to be in real trouble.

I am now only $4000 from my target of $20,000 pledged. If you are able to sponsor me, please go to https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/655G575.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

A Real Pain In The Arse

I have been riding a bicycle on the road since I was ten years old. I remember my father taking me out on the road to practice, and doing my first right-hand turn in High View in Pinner. I took my cycling proficiency and scored 96%, thereby allowing me to legally cycle on the road. So, I've been riding on the road for thirty years. Four years ago I did a long bike ride, although not as long as this. And I can say that categorically yesterday was the worst day of cycling I've ever had in my life.

The first reason is because of the road burn I got last week. It kept oozing for a few days until it's finally started to scab over. Of course, because it's right next to my knee, as it does so it's now started to crack and pull on itself. So my right knee is profoundly uncomfortable. Never mind the left knee, which I seem to have somehow harmed many weeks ago by not riding with good enough shoes. So now both knees hurt, in differing ways. That's reason number 1. Reason number 2 is that I've had a dramatic weight gain. Jenny reckons it's muscle and I shouldn't be worried, but on the scales it's upsetting.

Reason number 3 is that after three weeks in this new saddle, suddenly I'm in serious pain. Butt pain. I know, the concept of butt pain is kind of funny, except for the pain part. And this isn't just it's uncomfortable riding on a pencil seat. I've actually been quite surprised at how well I adapted to riding on this road bike's seat. But for no particular reason after three weeks, it's started hurting. And I mean, really hurting. It hurts so much that yesterday I went to cycle 50 miles, and could only do 20. And the 20 that I did took as long as I normally take 30, and that's not including the times I stopped and got off the bike for a while. And when I did get off the bike, I actually howled in pain. That's how bad it is. I've never had anything like this.

The pain isn't muscular, it's on my bones. I come from a fairly boney-bummed family (interesting Rabbinic factoid you probably never wanted to know). I feel like I've actually bruised my butt bones, but nothing's happened to cause that. When I fell last week, I didn't even land on my bum. So, this has come out of nowhere.

I was tremendously depressed. I'm only three weeks away from the big ride and I really needed to be cycling 50 miles. Instead, I was howling in pain during 20 miles. In desperation, I took the bike into the shop and changed the seat for my Scott Roadster seat. That's the seat that was originally on my road bike but which I replaced with a MUCH larger mountain bike seat. I've always been used to large mountain bike seats. I like the padding.

It turns out that that large mountain bike seat (right) may have been responsible for me learning to cycle slightly bow-legged which in turn led to part of the issue with my left-knee once I got onto the road bike. It's basically so big that it pushes the knees out. But it is very comfy.

Anyway, I decided this morning to take the Scott seat out for a spin. I had to get over the really depressing ride yesterday and basically get back into the saddle immediately. In my mind, I set a target of just 10 or 15 miles to test the new saddle. But I only made it 5 miles for two reasons - the seat was better and I got a puncture. When I started this blog, I was going to slightly ham it up a little (for lack of a better Rabbinic term) in order to encourage sympathy and larger donations for the ride. But I haven't had to because I've just been plagued with one thing after another. I've never had it this bad cycling.

Near the end of my disastrous ride yesterday, congregant and friend Neil Lyon, who has been helping me through this training, was just about to set out on his 60-mile preparation for Acoma as I was coming home. I pulled alongside him and almost burst into tears. He had a look at my shorts and said that there was nowhere near enough padding. I explained that I had used these shorts for the other long-distance ride I had done 4 years ago. So he had a feel. I must say, it's the first time a congregant has ever touched my bum so deliberately. Neil wants me to point out that he didn't touch my bum, he rubbed it twice! But he said that for thin seats like these, I need more padding. So that afternoon he lent me a pair of his mega-expensive road-racing shorts, which basically have an extra seat in them. They're literally seat-of-the-pants.

Compare my padding (left) with the new padding (right)...

Still, even with the new padding this morning's 5-mile puncture ride was uncomfortable. So when I took the bike into the shop today, I told the guy there that even the Scott seat with new padding wasn't good enough. So he measured my butt. Apparently, the bones in my bum are 155mm apart (interesting Rabbinic factoid you probably never wanted to know #2), which is quite wide. So these seats aren't supporting me properly so I'm probably shifting around and hurting myself slowly. There was only one solution. Behold! My new 155mm road bike saddle!!

I got on in the shop and my bum hurt. He said I should maybe rest for a few days but I explained that with only three weeks to go, I have to train. So my plan is this. Try the new seat and hopefully the pain will go away. If it doesn't, I'm going back to the huge mountain bike seat. I have to be comfortable in the ride. I can't be howling in pain. And if I do go for that one, I'll just have to be very careful how I use my legs so as not to hurt my knee.

So, this has been a really crappy week. I really wanted to give up and I would have done had it not been for the sponsorship, I would have done. If you have not sponsored me, please, please do. I need all the support I can get. You can sponsor me by going to 


I need your help. Please sponsor generously. Thank you.