The 2019 graduation season is here!
During this celebratory month, many of us will congratulate relatives, friends, and acquaintances on their graduation from college, high school, elementary school, and yes, even kindergarten! In our beloved congregation, Congregation Beth Tefillah of Scottsdale, Arizona, we will also honor our many graduates tomorrow with a special Kiddush luncheon (all welcome!).
But while we share in these moments of joy for our accomplished youth, I dare ask: Does Judaism believe in “graduations”? Does the Hebrew language even have a word for “graduation”? And does the Bible and Jewish history have any recorded examples of graduates and graduation ceremonies?
The simple answer is… no. Judaism does not quite believe in “graduations,” Hebrew does not have a word for this celebration, and there are no records in the Bible and in Jewish history of such ceremonies.
Nonetheless, Judaism does has a very similar ceremony, named “siyum.” This ceremony is held at the completion of our study of a tractate of the Mishnah or the Talmud.
But the difference between the two ceremonies is striking.
Graduation ceremonies celebrate the journeys, and accomplishments, of the past. Siyum ceremonies, on the other hand, celebrate the journeys of the future.
Thus, the siyum ceremony is marked by the “Hadran” prayer which conveys our promise to the book that we just completed, that we will return to studying it again and again, to eternity. Here are this prayer’s beautiful words:
“We will return to you, oh tractate, and you will return to us. Our mind is on you, oh tractate, and your mind is on us; we will not forget you, oh tractate, and you will not forget us – not in this world and not in the world to come.”
Judaism’s message in this very different type of ceremony is resoundingly powerful:
Life is an ongoing journey, in which there are no beginnings and ends. We may have completed the study of academic curriculums, but we must never complete the study of Torah, and all of its eternal teachings on life and living.
We may have graduated from schools and institutions, but we must never graduate from life, and feel as if we have now reached a final destination.
We may pause to reflect on the achievements of the past, but we must never fully rest the flaps of our wings that push us forward and pull us upward.
We may bid farewell and say ‘goodbye’ to the efforts of yesterday, but only if can welcome and say ‘hello’ to the opportunities of tomorrow.
A few years ago, during a visit with my dear mentor, world-scholar, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, I asked him: “What would you say is life’s most important question?”
Without skipping a beat, he replied: “‘And then what?” (-in Hebrew: “veaz ma?”)
And he explained, with a characteristic grin and a radiance that engulfed my being: “You see, it’s easy to fly into a passion. But what happens after the passion is gone? And then what? Our children become Bat and Bar Mitzvah with great excitement. But what happens thereafter? Can they remain committed to Judaism, when no one is celebrating them anymore? Weddings, nowadays, resemble Holywood-style sound and light shows. But then what? Can our marriage continue to grow even when the sound of “here comes the bride” has been replaced with the sound of a baby crying? We graduate from school and celebrate our achievements with great pride? And then what? Can we continue to study with devotion, to live with passion, and to do good with conviction?”
Graduations and academic feats must, therefore, signify the beginning. They ought to become the foundational pillars to the dreams of our future. For no matter how much one has accomplished, there is still so much more that one can study, and do.
And so, as we wish a wholehearted “mazal tov” to our graduates, we also wish them a wholehearted “good luck” on their continued journey of growth in all areas, materially, and most importantly, spiritually, from strength to strength, always.