The Commencement Speech I Would Have Given

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‘For my house shall be called a house
of prayer for all peoples.’

- Isaiah 56:7

 

Reform Synagogue Serving the Lakes Region of New Hampshire

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A rabbinic midrash tells that when God wanted to give humanity the Ten Commandments, God searched far and wide for a people who would be willing to accept them. However, one group after another refused God’s offer, preferring instead to follow more worldly pursuits. It was only the Jewish People who agreed, sight unseen, to accept God’s commandments and observe them faithfully.

Maybe that accounts for the high success rate among Jews. Through our Covenant, we have a closer, more immediate relationship with God, with an extra measure of blessing. Just note the number of Jewish Nobel prizes winners, or the number of successful Jewish lawyers, doctors, teachers and businessmen in our country.

Or perhaps consider for a moment the fact that Judaism is the third oldest extant religion, the third longest—and still-practiced! —way of life in the whole world, just behind the Chinese and Hindus—two groups that together add up to about 50%, half of the world’s population. Yet the Jews, who account for less than one-quarter of one percent, have managed, against all odds, despite persecution and exile, and even despite the terrible Holocaust of the previous century, to reach the respectable age of 3,600 years old, and still going strong. Now that’s success!

Many people have wondered at this astonishing statistic. Some ascribe it to DNA and good genes; some go ahead and call it God’s blessing. There are others, however, who see more sinister forces behind our success.

But there is really nothing mysterious here. The truth is that when the Hebrew Nation accepted the Covenant with God, we took upon ourselves more than a religion, more than a set of customs, rituals and beliefs. We became an eternal people, a community that transcends time and space. In accepting the Commandments, we became a nation defined by our values: Law, justice, compassion, freedom and hope.

The Jewish People accepted the Ten Commandments on faith, but we did not become blind followers of the law. Part of our success is due to our having learned to examine the law, to cast aside irrational opinion and ancient prejudice, and instead adapt the law to the times and conditions we live in.

Once, on a visit to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA, I was astounded to see a copy of Darwin’s The Origin Of Species, translated into Yiddish. The Jewish People, while obstinately holding on to our ancient customs and way of life, have always also kept pace with new discoveries and new knowledge. We explore; we question and inquire; we imagine and we create. We never stop our quest for truth and knowledge.

The secret of our success is two-fold: It’s in the values we uphold, and in the ways we reach our goals.

The values come down to us through our prayers and through our ancient texts, where we learn what it is that God wants from us: To extend a helpful hand to the needy; to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to bring light and education to benighted cultures and civilizations.

And we reach these goals by also following the guidelines the Torah teaches us. There’s no magic there. Our success isn’t the result of cheating, lying or some other illicit behavior. Rather, it’s because we do not belittle others or mock them. We do not take advantage of the weak—we help them instead. Recognizing the Image of God in every human being, we enable everyone to help the community in any way they can. Seeing God’s hand in every living creature, we take care of the world around us and make it better for all.

That is the secret of our people’s success through the past three and a half millennia.

This, then would be my advice to today’s graduates. I would tell them that success isn’t only measured by how much money you make or by how many possessions you accumulate. I would quote the passage from Pirkei Avot, the tractate from the Mishnah that in English we call “The Chapters of the Fathers.” There we learn:

Who is wise? The one who learns from every person…
Who is brave? The one who controls his or her passions…
Who is rich? The one who appreciates what he has…
Who is honored? The one who honors others…

Measured by these standards, we all actually can succeed. It isn’t luck, only perseverance. Stay on the right path, but be willing to make corrections along the way. Life ahead may yet be uncharted, but using the guidelines our people accepted so long ago will help you navigate through the storms, through the wilderness.

There is a traditional blessing we say whenever we finish studying a book of the Torah, and today we address these words to all our students, both those who are graduating this year and those who are still on their exciting path of discovery and exploration: Chazak chazak v’nitchazek—“Be strong and of good courage, and we shall all be strengthened together.”

Congratulations, and may you go from strength to strength.

© 2017 by Boaz D. Heilman

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