[I was recently privileged to address the commencement ceremony of Bais Yaakov of Baltimore, an Orthodox girls school founded in 1942. Below is an edited version of my remarks to the more than 100 high school graduates, their families and friends.]
Back in the day – the day when I was in grade school, that is – we were taught the “3 R’s” – Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic (that’s math to you, and yes, we didn’t spell so good back then). Of course, you’ve all learned those things and more. And as students of a school like Bais Yaakov, you have also learned the really important things for meaningful life.
Among them, I think, are another “3 R’s.” At this special moment in your lives, please permit me to briefly review them.
The first one is Recognizing – specifically, recognizing the good, the precise translation of the Hebrew phrase hakarat hatov. Its simple sense – gratitude – is something you graduates surely feel this evening – toward your parents, your teachers and your classmates, for all that they have given you. But the term’s deeper meaning is to recognize – with a capital “R” – the good that is always present in our lives, all the things with which we are constantly blessed. Because everything we have is a Divine gift. We’re called Jews after Judah – so named by our foremother Leah because of her gratitude – hoda’ah – that G-d had given her “more than her share” of sons. We Jews are always to see what we have – whatever it may be – as “more than our share.”
The larger world has a rather different ethic. An advertisement recently asked me “Don’t you deserve a new Lexus?” Well, no, I don’t particularly. I’m not at all sure I even deserve my used Saturn with the manual roll-up windows either. In fact, every morning when I open its door, I thank G-d for granting it to me. There is a contemporary social disease one might call eskumptmir-itis – from the Yiddish phrase “It’s coming to me.” We have to try mightily not to contract it.
As it happens, there is a vaccine for the disease of entitlement: the blessings we say throughout every day. Each is an expression of hakarat hatov, a recognition of a gift, and of its Source. We do well to say them carefully, and think of what we are saying.
The second “R” is Relating – trying to feel what others are feeling, empathizing. Here, too, a very different atmosphere envelops the world around us. Maybe it’s different in Baltimore, but in New York the roads teach much about empathy – about how things are when there isn’t any. Obviously each of us cares most about himself – that’s why “Love your neighbor like yourself” takes “yourself” as the given – but the law of the jungle is not our law. We are charged to try to see the world through the eyes of the other.
You’ve heard, no doubt, about the new father-to-be who paced the waiting room for hours while his wife was in labor, about how the process went very slowly and he became more and more agitated, until, an eternity later, the nurse finally came in to tell him his wife had delivered a little girl.
“Thank heaven!” he burst out. “A girl! She’ll never have to go through what I just did!”
You will meet people like that, I assure you – although, with G-d’s help, not your future husbands – and they exemplify the self-centeredness we have to strive mightily to shun.
The third “R” is perhaps the most important, since it touches on a Torah commandment and concept of singular status: Kiddush Hashem, or “Sanctifying G-d’s Name.” That imperative, of course, requires a Jew to die rather than commit certain sins, or any sin in certain circumstances. But we’re charged not only with dying, if necessary, in sanctification of G-d’s name but also with living in a state of such sanctification. This “R” is thus “Reflecting” – for, as observant Jews, our actions reflect not only on ourselves, our parents and teachers and schools, but on our Torah – in fact, on our Creator.
Today, perhaps, more than ever. Waiting at a bus stop once, I was approached by a young mother whose little boy was cowering behind her. She approached me and asked politely if I might assure the child that I was not Osama bin Laden. Turban, black hat, whatever, we do both have beards. I managed to convince the young man who I wasn’t, but was struck by the realization that Mr. Bin Laden not only has the blood of countless innocents on his soul but the sin of desecrating G-d’s name. We must counter with the opposite.
What an incredible obligation – and what an incredible opportunity.
Maimonides, in his laws about sanctification of G-d’s name, adds that great Torah-scholars have a particular mandate to act in an exemplary way – for they are perceived as the most powerful reflections of the Torah. I don’t think it’s a stretch to understand those words to apply today to all who are perceived to be reflections of Torah. In a world like ours, all identifiably Jewish Jews are “great Torah scholars” regarding this law – and we must all endeavor to act the part.
The opportunities are ubiquitous. Receiving change from a cashier, a smile – not to mention a “thank you” – leaves an impression. On the road, where politeness is at a premium, driving politely leaves an impression. The way we speak, the way we interact with others, all leave an impression. We must leave the right one.
So, dear graduates, remember always, above all else, just who you are: reflections of G-d on earth.
And may your reflections be clear and brilliant, and help merit a fourth “R” – the ultimate Redemption.