Posted on

Mark Young’s D’Var Torah

Mark Young

By Mark Young

In exactly 8 days I will walk up onto a stage, receive a slip of paper, and leave my high school class behind forever. I’ve been with most of them for 13 whole years and a student in the Gilford School District for 14 (I didn’t quite get Kindergarten the first time). Over the course of that near decade and a half, my peers and I have established and built upon our own unique identities as human beings. We have forged relationships, learned about ourselves and the world around us, and developed into young people more or less ready to embark onto greater things.

For me, a significant part of this ever evolving identity has always been my status as a Jew. There have been times that have made me feel important and special like those in elementary school when I have taught my classmates about the significance of High Holidays or how to properly spin a Dreidel and others that are not so nice. Like having unfair stereotypes pointed out in the way that only cruel middle school cliques can. I have both connected with and felt unstoppably supported by the community at TBI and experienced sensations of helplessness and devastation when I have learned of the bitter hardships faced by countless men and women for the sole reason that they identify as a Jew. I understand how a scapegoat works and have felt jealously like any other human being but I will never comprehend how one person can hate another so deeply on the basis of religious belief.

Personally, I value diversity and think being Jewish is kinda great. I mean, we literally have a holiday dedicated to frying things in oil and gambling and there is no such thing as a gathering of Jews without delicious food. Our culture has survived for millennia, producing some of the greatest intellectual and humanitarian minds that the world has ever seen. Next time you sit down for a Passover Seder, try to remember that Louis Brandeis, Albert Einstein, Sandy Koufax, and Jesus all made it through the whole thing so you can too. I did a little reading online and according to Forbes, you are a more than 100x more likely to become a billionaire if you are Jewish. We only make up .2% of the worlds population but take up an unprecedentedly large portion of its history.

Being Jewish comes with high standards but I hardly feel any pressure. Sure, I want to succeed, but after a few long years in hebrew school, I now know that that can be taken a few different ways. The only real guidelines are those of morality given to us by the Torah and through study of Jewish tradition. Basically as long as you adhere to justice and are a good person, you’re in the clear.

Overall, I am very proud of my Jewish heritage and thankful that I grew up so close to a synagogue. Temple B’nai Israel truly is an oasis in the cultural desert that is northern New England. Sure, we may not be the most traditional or observant synagogue, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. The members of this temple have taught me right from wrong, to fight for the good in this world, and most importantly, how to be a Jew. I feel empathy for my fellow man regardless of his culture and will never be a bystander as I know how that can end. From the first time I walked through the front door I have never ceased to be reminded of how much people can accomplish when they treat each other with love and respect. To the younger members of the congregation who have not yet been bar or bat mitzvah’d I say that it is 100% worth it and to keep coming to Hebrew school and Friday night services. Judaism is part of you and nothing but good can come from it.

I would like to say thank you to my various teachers, tutors, rabbi and all of you at TBI who have made the past years of my life special for one reason or another. I appreciate it more than you could ever know.

Posted on

The Commencement Speech I Would Have Given

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

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.