October 2, 2016

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Temple Emanu-El
Tucson, Arizona

There was a woman’s post on Facebook that struck home recently.  It read, “I saw my ex broken down with two flat tires this morning which made me late for work.   Nine times I drove past before he noticed me laughing at him.”

Well, this past year I have taken up cycling in earnest.   I’m not sure this is something that should interest anyone besides me, but after struggling for a couple of years to come up with an exercise regimen to replace running, it turns out that road biking works.  I ran for 35 years or so, and then I needed a new hip, and now after a couple of other tries it turns out pedaling a road bike for a couple of hours very early in the morning is just the ticket. 

There are fabulous bike paths that run next to our dry Tucson riverbeds.  Unlike our potholed streets, these bike paths are also very well maintained.  You can ride as far as you like—my longest rides are 50 or 60 miles—without competing with cars or trucks.  You get to enjoy our magnificent Southern Arizona scenery early in the day before it gets too hot, there are lots of interesting and dangerous forms of wildlife you zip past in safety—oh, look that was a rattlesnake!  and five or six hungry coyotes—and in my experience bicycle people are incredibly helpful and polite when something goes wrong.

Like a flat tire.

Actually, what goes flat when you are cycling is not, technically speaking, your tire.  As I learned, the tire is a strong piece of rubber that protects the delicate inner tube holding the air upon which you ride in reasonable comfort.  The tire is there to cover, shape, and hold the tube in place.  In essence, bicycling on the road is rolling along on air held within a thin circle of synthetic rubber or latex.  Flat tires result from something puncturing the hard outer tire and letting the air out of the delicate tube.  Put that way, biking sounds very hazardous indeed, but until you get a flat you really don’t pay much attention to that fact.  You are just, um, rolling along.

And then something goes wrong.  One moment you are cruising, the wind in whatever part of your hair is not covered by a helmet, thinking how pleasant the whole enterprise is and considering if you have time to ride an extra ten miles.  Then suddenly you start slowing down, in spite of your pedaling, and you feel things aren’t quite right.

And you have a flat.      

This is not a tragedy, of course.  All responsible road bikers carry a spare inner tube or two, and some sort of inflation device to pump the new tube up, as well as tools to complete changing the tube in the tire.  And all of us have at least some training in how to do this properly. 

Still, it’s not fun, and you can’t call the auto club to come and fix your bike flat.  So you get off your bicycle, and get out your tools.  You release the tire, unscrew things and pull out things and remove the damaged inner tube.  Then you carefully check to see what caused the flat—usually a thorn or wood or metal fragment—and remove that.  You definitely need to get out whatever punctured the tube, because if you don’t it will puncture the new tube, too. 

Next you delicately put the new inner tube back in, painstakingly seat it and put the tire back on, which is the hardest part of all.  Then you fiddle with the inflator and gas canister and valve, and before you put air in—that’s always an exciting moment!—you say a little prayer that you have done it all correctly and the tire will magically reinflate.  If you have done something wrong—something small—when you push the inflator lever you get a “pinch flat” where the tube blows out and you have to start the whole process all over again.

So you press the inflator—and when it works, magically you have a newly inflated tire and can go on your way.  Of course, whatever your original schedule was, it’s now pretty much gone. 

The good part of a flat is that people constantly call out and ask if you are OK, and offer to stop and help.  And if you need help—and I still do—they are better at it than you are, and sometimes have the gear you are missing to fix things properly.

I was blessed for a number of months of riding and never got a flat tire.  I pretty much thought I was immune.  And then, at the end of July, while cycling on the Rillito River bike path early in the morning, I got a flat.  With the assistance of my friend and a passing stranger we replaced the inner tube, reinflated the tire, and were back on the road, with no greater calamity than the loss of 25 minutes of riding time.

I finished the ride, went home, showered and put on a suit and headed to the cemetery to conduct an unveiling ceremony—and noticed that now my car tires were showing low on my dashboard monitor.  I stopped into a tire place on the way to the cemetery, got some air, and was told that I should return soon and get the flat fixed. 

I did the unveiling, went back to the tire place and they patched the tire.

Odd.  Two different modes of transport, two flat tires on the same morning.  What were the chances of that?  I included the little incidents in my sermon that Friday night, and thought no more about it.

Until two weeks later, on a Thursday morning. I was riding alone early, on a less traveled path, when I felt something go wrong. This time it was the more complex rear tire on my bike that went flat.  And my inflator didn’t work.  And no one was around.  And I had appointments that morning.  Finally, a rider came along with a working inflator and we got the tube inflated, and I made it back home.  Again, I cleaned up, put on a suit, got in my car—and the car tire light was on.  The same tire they fixed was now not fixed.  And I was late…

I got the car tire repaired—actually, replaced—and continued my working day.  And the next morning I went out riding again.

Guess what?  Another flat.  After nearly a year with no flats, three flat bike tires in two weeks, and two flat car tires as well.  After sailing along for the better part of twelve months on a cushion of air, all of it seemed to be leaking out... 

What did it mean?  It could be random chance, the results of monsoon rains and detritus on the path and roads. The causeless vagaries of life. 

But then I thought about it.  Aren’t our lives much like the process of riding along on a smooth path all year?  We zoom along through the months, enjoy the scenery, pay little attention to why we are able to keep going without incident.  We feel comfortable, confident, secure, although we are really only coasting along on a very thin margin of air—or error.  We do what we are used to doing, expect everything to work out fine.  And then, suddenly, something goes wrong.  Something, or someone, lets the air out.  We are pedaling, but we are not really going anywhere.

We have to stop and fix it.  We can’t get going again until we do.  We have to take the time to repair what is broken before we get back on course. 

That painstaking process needed before you can get back on the road after a flat is instructive.  When you find out that you have a problem, that the air has gone out of your sails, so to speak, you have to take everything apart.  Most importantly, you have to remove what poked the hole in the first place.  You have to see what stopped your progress, and repair it.  Only then can you inflate the tire again and ride on.

That’s really what these High Holy Days are all about.  All year we cruise along, and things are more or less fine.  We don’t pay much attention to how we are doing; we coast.  But when we come to Rosh HaShanah we realize that perhaps things are not exactly as we thought.  We may indeed have a flat tire—or two, or three, or in my case, five.  These Yamim Nora’im, these Days of Awe are when we realize that things are not rolling along quite as smoothly as we like to pretend. 

It is the time of year when we have to repair those punctures.  In a way, that is what teshuvah is all about.

By the way, I had a subsequent ride with my friend Cary a couple of weeks ago that included three flat tires… 

There is no shame in a getting a flat.  It happens to everyone, and it can happen a lot.  No shame, but there is responsibility.  The responsibility is to take the time to fix things.  Over these Ten Days of Repentance you must take the time to repair your life, to carefully examine yourself and your actions and figure out how to remove the problem, to fix the damage.  If you do this well, you will find that you have corrected what is injured, repaired your relationships and your course in life.  And then, if you have done your Teshuvah well, you just add air… and you can float into 5777 in fine form, tires—and life--repaired.  So may it be for each of us…


L’Shana Tova Tikateivu v’Teichateimu.


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