I enjoy spending hours cycling on Long Island’s roads. One of the first things you learn when riding for such long stretches is not to grip the handlebars too tightly. This may seem counterintuitive. What about when careening down a hill? What about when following closely behind other cyclists? The key, however, is a relaxed grip. Beginners often grip the bars so tightly that they complain about sore necks and shoulders, and even numb hands.
The secret about riding a bike is instead balance, rather than grip. So it is with life. You have to let go of holding on too tightly.
In a few days, Jews throughout the world will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah–the Jewish New Year. I am thinking that this holiday is about restoring that balance. It is about realizing that we cannot hold on to life with too tight of a grip. Examine the day’s prayers. They speak about the fragility of life. They frighten us with the exclamation: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die…”
The message is clear. It is not all in our hands. It is not all in our control. Hold on–but loosely–and enjoy the ride. Don’t forget: fill your hearts with gratitude. Stop trying to wrest control.
Then again, the day offers the possibility that we can escape what appears to be written. We can change. We can repent. We can turn. We are taught that these High Holidays are about correcting our mistakes and fixing our relationships. Back to cycling. Even turning is more about balance and leaning into where you want to go. It is not about gripping the handlebars and forcing the bike into a turn. It is about controlling your speed into the turn and most important, keeping your eye on where you want to come out.
Again, life is not about gripping so tightly. It is not about strength and control. It is about finesse. It is about balance and speed. It is about knowing where you want to go and what kind of person you want to become. That is in our hands. If the analogy is true, then we must come to understand that it is impossible to make a 180 turn unless we stop and get off. Who wants to do that? Albert Einstein once said, “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” So life is about incremental steps and changes. You must not stop. You have to keep moving.
And one more lesson from riding a bicycle. Every once in a while when I am out riding my bike, and my friends and I are not screaming at each other to pick up the pace or slow down or to watch out for potholes, I remember the day I learned to ride.
I can still see the moment. I can still visualize our street. I can still see my father and grandfather behind me. I was riding a small purple bike with a white banana seat. The training wheels were taken off. And Dad and Grandpa Charlie were encouraging me. My grandfather would hold the back of the seat as I gained momentum, and then he would let go. They would cheer for the few moments before I fell. And then they would pick me up and put me back on the bike for another try. Their encouragement never faltered, but the riding was up to me.
And one time, Grandpa Charlie said, “Ready, Steven.” He grabbed hold of the seat and began running. And he gave me a gentle push and I was off and riding. I did not look back to see if he was still running behind me and holding on to the seat. I imagine he held on a little longer to make sure I had enough speed to maintain my balance. His was a loving hand.
I think of him when I am riding my bike.
He died over forty years ago. And yet, even today, I can sometimes still feel his hand on the back of my bicycle seat.
That, too, is the message of Rosh Hashanah. The hand of prior generations lifts us and gives us balance. They help us gain enough momentum so that we might have just the right amount of speed to make a turn. That is why we come together and sing, not our words, but their prayers.
Without balance and the occasional, but necessary, turns, life would be impossible.
Never forget, loosen your grip–even a little, and hang on.
And always remember, there is a gentle and loving hand guiding you.
Rabbi Steven Heneson Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L’Dor V’Dor, a vibrant synagogue on Long Island’s North Shore. His writing appears in a variety of publications including Reform Judaism and The Times of Israel. He also blogs at rabbimoskowitz.com