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The Ceremony of Innocence

by Nigel Savage

November 2, 2017 | 13 Cheshvan 5778

Dear All,

I rode into work the day before yesterday, as I do many days of the year, on a beautiful bike path on a beautiful day. Hazon worked quite hard, for several years, to increase the number of protected bike lanes in NYC. We’re proud of that work, and I sometimes say to people, “and the statistics show that protected bike lanes reduce fatalities and injuries, both for bike riders and pedestrians…”

But of course those statistics didn’t allow for a day like Tuesday. A few hours after I rode in (and several of the people in our offices rode in, also) a crazy guy (but not randomly crazy; with ideological method to his murderousness) mowed down a bunch of people who happened to be on the path at that moment. As we know, eight of them never got up. I rode home, an hour later, past the police and the barricades and the camera crews. Also two little kids – wee high, three feet tall if that – in cute white Star Wars Stormtrooper outfits. May The Force Be With All Of Us, I thought.

Then just a few hours after that – this would be yesterday, in Israel – 170 of our riders rode from Jerusalem to Ashkelon, on the first day of the 2017 Arava Institute Hazon Israel Ride. People call it “the Israel Ride” or sometimes “the Hazon Ride” but the line that really matters comes after the colon: cycling for peace, partnership and environmental protection.Which it absolutely is, inspiringly so. This morning – a hundred years, to the day, after Lord Balfour wrote that letter to Lord Rothschild – they’re riding on to Urim and Mashabei Sadeh and Nitzana. Just past where the IDF, earlier this week, blew up a tunnel out of Gaza, killing a number of Palestinians who were thwarted in their desire to murder a number of Israelis.

What a strange world this is. Especially since I came back from my sabbatical I have been loving the ride into work, in the morning, more than ever before. I daven Shacharit – the morning service; parts of it – while I’m riding in. It’s hard for me to explain how beautiful it is. How grounding. The river, the path, the landmarks along the way. The trees. The boat basin and then midtown, the new Hudson Yards going up. The Shed. Smiling to people. Davening the way Buddhists teach us to meditate – saying the words, singing them, thinking them with kavannah (intention); and then, whether I want it or not, my mind wanders, off in any direction; and when I notice that I have wandered, I come back. Elohai neshama…birchat hashachar…the Shma…  Signposts along the way, like the physical signposts I ride past.

And the traffic alongside me, the cars, people on Citi Bikes, skateboarders, electric bikes (illegal on the bike lanes, but ubiquitous anyway). The crazy people riding towards me with no hands on the handlebars, texting away.

It is just so beautiful. Really, so very beautiful.

And I think about my Zaydie, injured fighting for England in the trenches in 1917. I think about what my ancestors might have eaten in 1817, or what they did if they had a toothache in 1717, or where they put human waste in 1617. I ride just past Stuyvesant and turn left the block before Goldman and head onto Maiden Lane.

It’s not one thing I want to say this morning. I celebrate New York. I celebrate Israel. I celebrate bike lanes. I celebrate civility, civilization, peace. Trees, gardens, gardeners. Rabbis. Pumpkins. The turn of the seasons. People who work for non-profits. People who donate to non-profits. The Empire State Building. Newspaper editors. Nurses. Policemen. Elected officials who are honorable. The people who clean the toilets and clear the streets and take the trash away. Central Park. Gan Shoshanim. The moshava. Pardes. The great blessing of being born in this time, with so many extraordinary blessings that we so easily – too easily – take for granted.

I find myself thinking: we don’t speak up enough for moderation as an actual virtue, for the vital center at the heart of communities and traditions.

And in the last few weeks I have found myself rereading Yeats’ The Second Coming. A few of its lines are so well known that they are almost a cliché. But the poem as a whole is strong and strange and intense:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity. 

Surely some revelation is at hand; 
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi 
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep 
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? 

“Things Fall Apart” became the title of the Chinua Achebe novel.
The last line inspired the Joan Didion book.
“The best lack all conviction…” is often quoted.

But I find myself drawn to “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” The ceremony of innocence is drowned. What a remarkable line. I don’t really know what it means; I don’t know what the whole poem means. But one sort of feels it. Its atmosphere and its feeling are so strong.

Yeats was a mystic, a Swedenborgian (like Blake) and an Irish nationalist. He wrote this two years after the Balfour Declaration, a year after the Great War ended. My Zaydie survived, but fifty million people in Europe were dead – accidentally, in a way, since no one really intended the war. The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

So… so here we are.

I thank everyone on the Israel Ride, and everyone who sponsored them. Registration for the 2018 Israel Ride is open. Click here if you’d like to join me next year; it’s a truly wonderful experience.

Let me end this slightly meandering-seeming email with this. Rachel Aronson, Manager of Greening & Climate Initiatives, and I were at Congregation Agudath Israel last Shabbat, in Caldwell, NJ. The home shul of the Drills and Arthur Bocian and Mark Lipsy and Lisa Schlesinger and Deborah Arvit and the Wernicks and many people who have played a big role at Hazon, going back 16 years now.

And in a way that I almost never do, I allowed myself to express a larger vision, quite strongly. I hate people telling me what to do, so I never wanted Hazon to be preachy. I’m drawn to moderation, or, at least, to the understanding that there is validity to different arguments. I’m a Zionist, for instance, essentially a liberal Zionist, but I empathize with the Israeli right, and with the Israeli left, and the moderate Palestinians. I don’t agree with the radical Palestinians but I could explicate their position.

At CAI on Shabbat I was talking about Hazon’s Seal of Sustainability. And I said, in essence: we have to raise our game. We have to walk the walk. Shuls need to do this. Jewish institutions have to do this. The American Jewish community has a carbon footprint larger than 120 nations – including countries like Ireland and Hungary and Israel itself. And we have to get it down. We have to do the right thing, we have to focus and take it seriously, and if we do that we’ll respect Jewish tradition and we’ll make a difference in the world. And we’ll inspire our young people as well, which matters too.

So I said all that, and a bunch of other things, and people really liked it a lot, and responded very strongly.

And so this morning is the start of the rest of our lives. We have so so much to be grateful for. Let’s not slouch. Let’s not grouch. Let’s celebrate the miracles of this time, this moment, and not mess it up. Let’s be responsible, and moderate, and not support crazy people, and not devalue truth, and let’s ride safely to work, all of us, every day, everywhere, today, right now.

Shabbat shalom,
Nigel