Letter to a 21st Century Grad
Wow – you did it! You sat there under the sun in your cap and gown – a 21st century grad in 12th century attire. You sat there with rows and rows of strangers and friends -- all of you happy and excited and proud. You listened to the speeches, the words instructing you to reflect back and remember; to look ahead and dream. You did just that, and maybe you shed a tear. You walked up onto that stage and shook hands, accompanied by cheers and applause from the people who had loved you and supported you for so many years, all of whom were frantically taking your photo from afar; and suddenly that long-awaited diploma was in your hand. When all of you had finished that walk on the stage, together you moved the tassel on your mortarboard from the right to the left to symbolize the completion of your studies. And then you threw your caps in the air and cheered like crazy, because a chapter of your life was done.
I imagine the last thing in the world you want right now is another speech. And I don’t want to give one – I really don’t. People starting out are deluged with advice – way too much of it. And it doesn’t do much good anyway -- most of what you learn in life you have to learn by yourself. Oops – I guess that was advice.
So don’t consider this a speech, or even advice coming down from on high. Think of it, instead, as a letter from someone who knows you and respects you and cares for you deeply; someone who looks at your beautiful face and can’t help having hopes for what your life will be.
Three things I’d like to say to you. First: maybe you remember when you and I stood together on the bima at Beth Am – once when you were 13, then again when you had just turned 16, at your Confirmation. Maybe you remember that on that colorful Ark curtain of ours there’s a picture of a mountain – orange and gold and yellow, with rays of white light coming down from it. You probably know that it’s Mt. Sinai, our sacred place of enlightenment, where we received Torah – the Hebrew word that means “wisdom.”
There’s a reason that the mountain is a sacred symbol for Jews. Our orientation is upward. We think of life as a process of climbing higher, reaching higher, striving to elevate ourselves every day and every year of our life. That might sound exhausting – it does take some energy. But here’s the thing: we’re not climbing our mountain in competition with anyone else. Each of us has our own particular peak to scale, our own personal challenges to meet. Maybe it’s overcoming a bad temper, or our tendency to avoid conflict and hide our true feelings. Maybe it’s laziness or workaholism or judging everyone around us harshly and incessantly, or a failure to keep our promises. Wherever we go, whomever we’re with, whatever work we end up doing, Jews try to focus on the upward journey, progressing step by step, improving ourselves and our world, making today better than yesterday and tomorrow better than today.
Why am I telling you this? Because you’ve graduated into a world where winners are celebrated and the worst thing you can call someone is a loser. Everything in your life up til now has been preparing you for outward success. You’ve been primed and coached and assured that you can do whatever you set your mind to do. But here’s what I truly believe: it doesn’t really matter much what career you choose. There are any number of honorable ways to make a living in this world, and you’ll probably experience several of them. I hope you’ll find something to do that you enjoy and can believe in. What really matters, for Jews, is that you’re always climbing the mountain -- your own personal mountain, your own path to greater wisdom and understanding, greater compassion and strength. That’s what makes you a winner.
Here’s the second thing I want to say: I hope that as you’re making the climb you’ll make time every day to enjoy the view. Our tradition envisions for us a day filled with small moments of gratitude, reminding us to say a blessing of thanks whenever we see something beautiful, taste something delicious, experience something amazing. By looking for those moments throughout the day, we teach ourselves to find beauty, delight and amazement in simple, ordinary things. Peak experiences – like your graduation – are wonderful, but deep happiness comes from a life lived with close attention to the goodness that is right in front of our eyes, all the time.
You’ve spent so much of your young life trudging forward, from one assignment to the next, one test or essay or project to the next. Many people live their whole lives that way, missing out on joy along the way. Or they run after money and pile up possessions, thinking material wealth will bring them happiness and security. You come from a tradition that takes a different view. Pirke Avot, the Jewish tractate on ethics, says that a wealthy person isn’t defined by how much stuff he or she has; a wealthy person is someone who is satisfied and grateful for what she has [Avot 4:1].
And one more thing: for Jews, it matters how you climb the mountain, how you make the journey of life. The Bible makes this clear. It asks: “Mi ya’aleh b’har Adonai – who will ascend the mountain of God; who will stand in God’s holy place? One who has clean hands and a pure heart…who has not taken a false oath or sworn deceitfully; ….one who walks upright and does what is right; …who does not speak evil or do harm to others….who stands by an oath, even if it hurts….The person who acts thus shall never be shaken” [Ps.24:3-4;15:2-4].
This Biblical psalm is talking about the ancient temple on Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem. It asks who is fit to stand in that high place – the highest, most privileged place in the land. And the answer is not the one who’s climbed fastest, streaking past the competition; or the strongest and loudest one, who’s pushed and bullied and bludgeoned his way to the top, crushing the weak along the way; and it’s not the smartest and shrewdest, who’s figured out all the angles and finagled his way to the top, lying and cheating the gullible along the way. The Bible says that to get to the highest, most privileged place in this life you have to be a person of integrity, honest and decent and faithful.
The Temple in Jerusalem is gone now, of course. But the promise of the Bible still stands. If you want to rise to the top and taste the best that life offers – close and loving relationships; good friends and colleagues who respect and admire you; children who want to grow up to be like you – there’s only one path that will take you there.
This week in the Torah, God says to the Israelites: “I am the Eternal your God who brought you out from the Land of Egypt to be their slaves no more, who broke the bars of your yoke and made you walk upright” (26:13). In Egypt, the Israelites were abused and degraded, exploited like cattle, treated like trash. God offers them a different life -- a life of dignity, the chance to stand upright and tall; in Hebrew, komemiyut. Judaism, for me, offers a way of life that helps us walk upright through this world, gain self-respect, earn the respect of good people around us, climb the only mountain that matters.
Dear 21st century grad, I remember when you were just 13 and we stood before the Ark and put the Torah into your arms and you carried it all around the sanctuary. I’ve often thought about why we do that. After all, other heavy objects in our synagogue are shlepped around on carts with wheels. If the idea was to convey the Torah around the sanctuary in the quickest, most comfortable way, we could set the scrolls on a nice electric cart that our B’nai Mitzvah students could steer around the room every Shabbat morning. That would be easier on their muscles; I’m sure it would make them less nervous, and best of all, it would leave their arms free so they could shake hands and hug and kiss all their guests.
But we don’t do that. Instead we put these heavy scrolls into the arms of our 13 year olds and ask them to carry them on their own, bearing the weight on their own shoulders and backs. And instead of showering our B’nei Mitzvah with adoring kisses as they walk through the congregation, we focus our attention and our kisses on the scroll in their arms. The message we send on that special day is this: it’s not all about you. It’s about entrusting the Torah to you.
We give the Torah to our sons and daughters because Torah is our Jewish essence and our source. We depend on you to carry it forward when we are gone – to cherish the songs and the stories, our people’s ongoing lover’s quarrel with God, their search for justice and peace amidst the blood and pain of life; their constant struggle to rise higher and be better and elevate this world. We lift the Torah high above the congregation to show that we honor and exalt these teachings, holding them sacred and precious. We lift up Torah because its words are the highest we know. Even now, they continue to summon us, challenging us to grow into the people God wants us to be.
And we wrap our arms around the Torah and hold it close to our heart, the way we hold on tight to the people we love. Dear 21st century grad, I know how very much you are loved. Your parents and your grandparents look at your beautiful face and their hearts are full of hope for you. They want to hold on tight, but more and more they are letting go, freeing you, trusting you to walk your own path.
I hope with all my heart that in the years ahead you’ll walk the Jewish path. It’s a path that requires backbone and strong muscles. Because it’s not easy to lift up that scroll. And it’s not easy to carry Torah with you into the wilderness, as our ancestors did, and to bring high ideals with you wherever you go, into places that are cold and cynical and lacking in human kindness. But that’s what Jews have always done, and I pray you will do it as well. Mazel tov, dear graduate, and may God bless you always.
As each generation of young Jewish adults is handed the Torah by their elders, so at Beth Am, each generation of leaders receives the Torah from their predecessors. Tonight we will honor our Board of Directors – an outstanding group of men and women who have accepted the call to lead our congregation for the next two years. All of them are people of intelligence, integrity and devotion. All of them deserve our gratitude and respect.
As they begin their term of service to Beth Am, I’d like to ask the members of our Board of Directors to rise and stand along the center aisle: Barry Asin, Miriam Ben-Natan, Andy Cheng, David Crankshaw, Nancy Federman, Darlene Feldstein, Bob Frankle, Rachel Gibson, Stephanie Hannaford, Micaela Hellman-Tincher, Jay Hirsh Julie Kaye, Melissa Kelley, Hal Luft, Greg Marcus, Hannah Marcus, Dana Marks, Steve Ruvolo, Alona Scott; and our president, Bruce Ives, who will receive the Torah from past president Loree Farrar.
I invite their families to stand as well; and I ask the congregation to rise in their honor.
Members of the Board of Directors: You have come to a high place of honor in our congregation because of the high esteem in which you are held. Tonight we entrust the Torah to you, trusting that you will do the business of our congregation well, while remembering that we are not a business but a sacred community.
With deep gratitude for the gifts of heart and mind you bring to board service, we offer this prayer: May the Holy One bless you with health and strength as you take on the holy work of synagogue leadership. May you fulfill your responsibilities faithfully, upholding Jewish ideals, holding fast to the ancient Jewish vision: “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God” [Micah 6:8]. We thank you for sharing your time and your talents with all of us. From the bottom of our hearts we thank your families for sharing you, as well; may they nourish you and laugh with you, and give you lots of love and understanding throughout the months ahead.
Your colleagues on the professional team are ready to work with you in partnership as we sustain our beloved congregation. And remember – to paraphrase God’s words to Jacob, “Hineh anochi imach – we are with you; we’ve got your back.”
As Beth Am enters its 63rd year, we give thanks for those in every generation who stand ready to carry the Torah. [Torah is passed through the group as we sing “May you be blessed as you go on your way…”]