Graduation: A Time to Reflect on Five Areas of Growth

We are now in the season of graduation, as many of our children are finishing one stage in their lives and moving on to another stage.  Many of them are focusing excitedly on their future, whether it’s another educational opportunity or an employment opportunity.  At the same time, graduation is perhaps a time to reflect on the past, on what our schooling has meant for us and for our character development.  I hope that we can reflect upon five areas of growth.


It is part of the human condition to yearn for strong, meaningful relationships.  God Himself stated in Parshat Breishit, “Lo tov heyot ha’adam levado,” that it is not good for man to be all alone.  We naturally desire companionship.  Even as Torah committed Jews, we value companionship.  God tells us, “V’nikdashti b’toch Bnei Yisrael,” that God should be sanctified in a community.  The Torah’s message to us is to go out, create and develop real relationships.  Hopefully as we reflect on our time in school, we will reflect that it was a time when we forged strong relationships with our friends, teachers and colleagues.


We celebrate graduation shortly after the holiday of Shavuot.  The holiday of Shavuot is strange in a number of ways, perhaps most significantly by the mere fact that there is no explicit Biblical connection between the giving of the Torah and the holiday of Shavuot, nor is there any Biblical mention of the exact date of the giving of the Torah, which our Rabbis associate with the holiday of Shavuot.  It has been suggested that the reason for this is that the giving of the Torah, which was a momentous and exciting event, is not connected to one particular day. Rashi in Shmot 19:1 tells us that every day we must feel as if we have received the Torah!

Our growth is not measured in one-time events, in a singular fantastic experience like matan Torah.  Our growth is measured in the day-to-day grind of how we respond to these singular fantastic experiences.  Whether it was a good grade in a particular subject, or a great performance on a sports team or an academic team, hopefully we have realized that disciplined, consistent effort day in and day out is the recipe to long-term success.  The value of discipline is critical to academic and professional success, and it is also crucial to religious growth.  Hopefully, we appreciate the importance of not only focusing on a specific date, a specific moment of religious inspiration, a matan Torah experience, but on starting a routine and a pattern of consistent growth in Torah study, in communal leadership, in religious observance and in chesed.


Going through life and especially going through school is a time when we experience ups and downs.  We try to achieve and sometimes we fail.  It will happen again and again, but that doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to achieve.

Throughout our education, we have been tested about how we have responded to failure.  Rav Soloveitchik defined shame as an expression of moral consciousness accompanied by a feeling of guilt.  Once man sinned and was granted free will and the choice to sin, he realized that there is a discrepancy between what was expected of him and a failure to realize or act on those expectations.  Man was created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God.  Man always contrasts his real self with the ideal tzelem-self and the greater the gap between the tzelem, that ideal vision, and our reality, the greater the shame and the greater the guilt.  Similarly, when we fail, we feel bad that we didn’t try harder or we are embarrassed that we performed so poorly regardless of our effort.

However, Rav Soloveitchik expected us to return to the message of tzelem Elokim.  Since we were created in the image of God, it is the image of God that will sustain us, inspire us and help us rise after we fail.  True belief that we were created in the tzelem Elokim ensures that any guilt or shame that we have will be accompanied by an optimistic faith in the possibility of renewal and change.  Hopefully, the resilience that we expressed in school in rebounding from failure will guide us when we deal with these situations in the real world.


When we reach certain milestones in life, we utilize these milestones as opportunities to express gratitude.  The Torah tells us that God blessed Avraham “ba’kol” and Yaakov announced to Esav, “Yesh li kol.”  Avraham was blessed with believing that he had everything and Yaakov announced that he believed that he had everything.  Sometimes, we can take our education for granted and we find reasons to complain about things that we didn’t like throughout our tenure in school, but the Torah encourages us to appreciate all the goodness around us and to realize that our education is, indeed, a privilege.  When we do that, we are much happier.

I was listening to a Ted talk by a Benedictine Monk name David Steinl-Rast, who made the following argument.  People may think that first we are happy and then we express gratitude for our happiness, but that is incorrect.  In truth, first we express gratitude and we live gratefully.  If we express gratitude and if we live gratefully, then we are happy.  In short, gratitude is the key to happiness.  That is exactly what the Torah tells us in the context of the bikkurim ritual.  We first express gratitude to God by performing the bikkurim ritual.  Then the Torah states, “v’samachta b’chol hatov” – and then we are happy with all the goodness that we receive.  Why are we happy?  Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk explains that we are happy not because of what we received, but we are happy since God gave it to us.  We are happy with whatever God gives us specifically because He gave it to us.  We are happy because everything is good – kol hatov – because it is God who gives it to us.   Hopefully now is the time when we can all reflect about the wonderful opportunities that our education has provided for us.


At some point during the school year, I’m sure we were overwhelmed and/or anxious, not knowing how we were going to manage a certain situation.  We just didn’t know how we could cope.  We tried our best and along with our efforts we prayed to God to help us along the way.  In short, we had faith in God.  Rabbi Sacks writes, “Faith is the courage to take a risk for the sake of God or the Jewish people; to begin a journey to a distant destination knowing that there will be hazards along the way, but knowing also that God is with us, giving us strength if we align our will with His.”  Hopefully, we now can remember times throughout the year when we were afraid and we felt vulnerable, but we embraced the fear and the vulnerability, had faith in God and acted on that faith.

During this season of graduation, we can reflect on how the values of relationships, discipline, resilience, gratitude and faith have been central to our educational experience and we how we will continue to develop these values going forward in the next stages of our lives.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.