Randy Pausch delivering the commencement address at Carnegie Mellon University, 2008.

I have been looking at commencement speeches over the last few days, for work purposes. (No, I’m not giving a commencement speech anywhere.) Commencement speeches are an interesting genre, and living in the post-modern times we do, many commencement speakers now make reference to that very fact—acknowledging the form of the speech, then trying to make light of it, and ultimately embracing it: Here’s what I’m supposed to tell you; Here’s what you really need to know; Here’s all of that restated in flowery language.

Besides this observation about form, what has struck me in reading through a bunch of these speeches is how many of them bring up something related to death. Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture—which he gave many times before he died, and published as a book as well—is now the classic example of the genre, but most commencement speeches tap into a similar sentiment, if not quite as dramatically: remember, the clock is ticking, so think about what really counts. Death awaits us all.

Bringing death to the forefront makes whatever we talk about more urgent. It thrusts the conversation into the realm of ultimate concern. In the Torah, as in our own experience, death—the limitation on life—is what makes human life human. “Humans have become like one of Us, knowing good and bad,” God says in the Garden of Eden. “‘And now they might extend their hand and take from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’ And the Lord God sent them out from Eden to work the land from where they were taken” (Gen. 3:21-22) Human life would not be what it is were it not for death.

And yet, if commencement speeches are any indication, we seem to need to be reminded of this. The basic message of so many commencement speeches seems to be: “We live in a self-centered age. (Insert appropriate observation about iphones, Facebook, commercialism, etc.) But remember that we’re all going to die, and that you won’t care how many Facebook friends you had on your deathbed. Focus on what really matters. Live your passion. Don’t have regrets on the last day.”

Parshat Shemini likewise frames experience in terms of death. Partaking of the same dramatic arc as the opening chapters of Genesis, in this parasha we find a moment of union with the divine. Chapter 9 of Leviticus fulfills the story we began in Exodus 25, as the purpose of the Mishkan is fulfilled: “Moses and Aaron then went into the tent of meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown” (Lev. 9:23-24).

We would love to stop right here. But then, in the very next verse, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer esh zara, strange fire, and they die. The perfect moment would not last. Death intrudes. Following a line of midrashic interpretation, it seems that Nadav and Avihu partook of a brash youthfulness not unfamiliar to us today: they failed to show respect for their teachers, they got drunk (and, if the later commandments in the parasha are an indication, perhaps they also grew their hair long). Which is to say that they typified a young adulthood that forgets, or simply isn’t aware of, mortality and all the limitations that stem from it.

From this incident springs Yom Kippur, as we will read in two weeks (Lev.16). If the commandment of Pesach is to imagine ourselves as though we left Egypt, the goal of Yom Kippur is to imagine ourselves as though we are about to die. Pesach, a child-centered holiday which takes place in the youthful season of spring, evokes in us a youthful spirit, as the world opens up. Yom Kippur, an adult-oriented holiday that takes place in the older time of autumn, brings out a mature sensibility, as the world prepares for the death of winter. And just as we are to take a part of Pesach with us all year and remember the Exodus every day, likewise we are instructed to carry part of Yom Kippur with us do teshuva every day too.

This could all sound like the message of a commencement speech. But I would add one final word to distinguish it. I mentioned earlier that many of the commencement speeches I’ve read take the reality of death and lead to a message of the importance of self-expression, authenticity, being who you want to be. The Torah, and Jewish tradition more broadly, makes a different move. The reality of death demands less that we ask who we want to be, and more For whom and what are we responsible? The language of Torah is not as much about self-expression as about responsibility and commitment. The reality of death, the reality that frames all of our lives, prompts us to ask (Lev. 10:10-11) What is holy? What is good? And What is right?, and to strive for a life answering those questions.

Shabbat shalom.

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Baccalaureate Service Invocation
Northwestern University
June 16, 2011

Rabbi Josh Feigelson

One of the first blessings a Jew says in the morning is a blessing of Hashem, God, Melamed Torah l’amo Yisrael, who teaches Torah to God’s people Israel.

As human beings we imagine many metaphors for Hashem: Creator, monarch, savior, artist, warrior, and even shalom, peace itself.

But the image of God as teacher is one we especially cherish in the Jewish tradition. God is an educator, and thus the work of education is holy. A moment of teaching and learning is a moment of mystery and inspiration, as awe-inspiring as the birth of a child or the blossoming of a flower. God, Who constantly renews the work of Creation, is the same God who taught us at Sinai, and every day teaches us anew.

So on this day of culmination and conclusion, which is in the same breath a day of beginning and becoming, we pray for the ability to recognize that we are all learners and we are all teachers, and that the work of learning and teaching is the work of creation, the work of redemption, the work of life.

We pray for the enlightenment to see that we always have something to learn, and we always have something to teach, if only we will open our ears and unfetter our hearts.

The Torah teaches us to walk in God’s ways: As God is gracious, so too must we be gracious; as God is merciful, so too must we be merciful. To this we can add: As God is a teacher, so too must we be teachers; As God is an educator, so too must we be educators. As God has the patience of a teacher, the openness of a teacher, the integrity of a teacher, so too may we be blessed with patience, openness, and integrity—to learn, to teach, and to act upon our teaching.

Today we give thanks for years of learning, and we pray for guidance and inspiration for a lifetime of teaching and learning ahead. May we be blessed with the curiosity to ask big questions, the discernment to find wise teachers, and the courage to learn and to teach. May God be with us. Amen.

My Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Dov Linzer, offered this dvar Torah, which I think is particularly fitting for this week, which marks graduation at Northwestern.

In his instructions to the spies, Moses includes a potentially problematic phrase. In addition to the general strategic evaluation of the land, Moses asks them to make an evaluative judgment, namely to see “whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad.” (Num. 13:19) The medieval commentators generally explain this as part of the military evaluation. But, Rabbi Linzer argues, it in fact paves the way for the central difference between Caleb and Joshua and the rest of the spies. While the despondent spies emphasize only the strategic challenges, Caleb and Joshua included in their report the very words of goodness that Moses sought: “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceeding good land.” (Num. 14:7)

I find this observation an approrpriate one for Commencement because the story here is essentially about how we approach knowledge. It is no stretch to say that the spies become a paradigm for our engagement with the world–they interact with new phenomena and make judgments about them. The larger group of spies is unable to see the goodness in the land, or, by extrapolation, in the world. Perhaps more accurately, goodness for them would only come after the empirical facts are dealt with, if it ever comes at all; a moral orientation comes second, not first. Caleb and Joshua, however, approach their discovery with a sense that goodness is there, not in a way that blinds them to the facts, but in a way that sustains their covenantal relationship between the land and the people of Israel.

The Torah is thus instructive about our search for knowledge, which is life itself. In order for life to be meaningful, in order for us to avoid the pitfalls of the relativistic void in which there is no truth except the one each person makes up for him or herself, we have to engage the world with the notion that goodness is possible, that truth is there to be found if only we will look for it.

Last night NU Hillel hosted a fantastic end-of-year appreciation reception. Four years ago I couldn’t have imagined it–well, I could have, but we were a long way from making it happen. 120 people, from an immense diversity of Jewish backgrounds, sharing stories, eating yummy treats, and enjoying Jewish life together. I am profoundly proud, and deeply grateful. Here are two videos from the event (which also represent my first foray into editing). Thanks to Shauna Perlman for shooting the footage.

While we’re at it, here is video from the Benediction I gave at Northwestern’s 2007 Commencement. I’m the very last speaker.

(To see this on video, click here. Go to five minutes before the end.)

In the Jewish tradition we have a beautiful custom that at the beginning of Shabbat, the Sabbath, on Friday night, parents place their hands on the heads of their children and offer them a blessing. 

Benediction means blessing. And so as we conclude this Commencement, and as the sun begins to set and Shabbat draws close, I invite all the parents here to focus your heart on your children. In a moment, I will ask you to offer a blessing to your children with me. 

And to the graduates, both to those whose parents are here today and to those whose parents are far away, I ask you to open your hearts to receive your parents’ blessing. For even if they are not physically with us today, their spirits join us here in blessing you.

With our hearts directed, and with all the joy and hope and promise of today, I ask you to join with me in offering the traditional blessing from the Torah:

“May God, the source of life, the source of mystery, bless you and keep you.

“May the light of God’s face shine upon you and make you glow with grace.

“May God’s face turn toward you, and give you peace.” Amen.