Commencement Addresses

Your future is limitless. Take risks. Make mistakes. Dream big. There’s nothing you can’t achieve. This is the season of Commencement Addresses. Advice is designed to help graduates transition from the most structured upbringing in human history into the least structured young adulthood in human history.

These secular sermons, as David Brooks calls them in his new book The Second Mountain, are intended to be personal.  But they come off as too individualistic. You’re the only one who can decide what’s right for you. Dig deep and find your calling. “Figure out yourself based on no criteria outside yourself” Brooks laments as we send graduates forth into a formless wilderness.

His new book is compelling because it charts his own journey of discovery.  Five years ago when Brooks wrote about character’s road, he too was in the grip of individualism. He encouraged readers to ‘overcome your weaknesses by revealing resiliency and resourcefulness.’  Now, based on personal struggles along with the societal casualties of hyper-individualism, he recognizes the ceiling of trying to do it on our own.  A world of mine, mine, mine isn’t nearly as fulfilling as a world of ours, ours, ours.

This week’s portion of Torah contains a recurring word that can help chart the journey from possessing to belonging.  That Hebrew word is ‘ga’al’ meaning ‘redeem’ recurs more times in Chapter 25 of the Book of Leviticus than it does in all of the other Books of the Torah combined.  To redeem is to restore and reinstate.  Its affect is to revitalize and revive.  Whether one is redeeming land, a house, or a person, its process is presented relationally.  It’s reflex isn’t about compiling.  It is rather about outpouring.  Hoarding is unsustainable.

The life-span of the average American has shortened over each of the last three years.  Although the elderly are living longer, an epidemic of despair related deaths due to suicide and drug use now plagues our land.  Even when ‘going it alone’ isn’t lethal, breakdowns in trust and purposeful living are fueling alarming trends toward tribalism.

Commencement time always coincides with the Festival of Shavuot’s Sinai revelation.  It offers a different kind of Address.  We are willing to listen to every “I” except of the “I” uttered at Sinai (Anochi, Ex. 20:2), Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to say.  May we discover redemption’s restoration by connecting ourselves to something bigger and more lasting.  And then may we go forth and share it.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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