Jonathan Muskat

Message to our Graduates

Graduation is a milestone marking the culmination of years of hard work, dedication, and personal growth. It is a time to reflect on past achievements and look forward to future possibilities. As we celebrate this significant moment, it’s crucial to consider not only our accomplishments but also how we approach challenges and growth in our lives and the lives of others. Drawing from lessons learned through community discussions on mental health and insights from our sacred texts, we can find valuable guidance for this next chapter.

In recent years, our community has dedicated one Shabbat each May to exploring mental health issues. These discussions have revealed important principles that resonate deeply with the journey of graduates. A recurring theme has been the importance of avoiding labels and judgment. One panelist emphasized that if someone is struggling with addiction, we should not label them an addict. Instead, we should express our desire to help them overcome their specific challenges. Another panelist advised against judging a child or their parents when the child faces difficulties. Rather than assigning blame, we should frame the situation as an opportunity to develop skills and solve problems collaboratively.

These insights highlight a fundamental truth: labels and judgments can limit potential and hinder growth. When individuals see themselves through the lens of negative labels, they may feel trapped and incapable of change. This is a powerful lesson for graduates as they step into new environments and face new challenges. Defining ourselves or others by a single characteristic or mistake can prevent us from recognizing the full potential within.

Listening to these discussions, I was reminded of Rambam’s description of the path of repentance, which includes changing one’s name to signify becoming a different person (Hilchot Teshuva 2:4). This symbolizes the idea that we are not defined by our past mistakes. In Hebrew, the word for sin, חטא, can also mean “to miss the mark” (Shoftim 2:15). This perspective encourages us to view our errors not as defining flaws but as opportunities for growth and learning. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks beautifully encapsulated this idea, stating, “God never asked us not to make mistakes. All He asks is that we acknowledge our mistakes, learn from them, grow through them, and make amends where we can” (Ceremony & Celebration, p. 83).

As graduates, embracing this mindset is essential. You will inevitably encounter setbacks and make mistakes. However, these should be seen as part of the learning process. The key to growth is to believe in your ability to overcome these challenges and not be defined by them. This principle is not only for personal development but also for how we interact with others.

The Sefat Emet offers further wisdom in his commentary on Pirkei Avot, interpreting Yehoshua ben Perachyah’s statement to judge “the whole person” favorably (Avot 1:6). This means we should consider someone’s entire personality and background rather than judging them based on a single action. Understanding the broader context allows us to see the good in others and support their growth. Rav Nachman of Breslov teaches that judging others favorably can lead to teshuva (repentance) and transformation. By fostering a positive outlook, we can inspire those around us to achieve their best.

This approach is exemplified by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev’s nightly custom of self-examination. If he identified a flaw in his actions, he would resolve not to repeat it, acknowledging his past mistakes while committing to truth and improvement. This practice embodies the belief in our capacity for growth and the importance of self-compassion and resilience.

As you graduate, take these lessons to heart. In your future endeavors, you will face numerous challenges and opportunities for growth. Remember that mistakes are not failures but stepping stones toward becoming the best version of yourself. Avoid defining yourself or others by a single attribute or mistake. Instead, focus on the potential for growth and the whole person.

Your journey ahead is not just about personal success but also about how you impact those around you. By adopting a compassionate and growth-oriented mindset, you can inspire and uplift others, fostering a supportive and resilient community. This approach aligns with the growth-oriented path of Judaism and can guide you toward a fulfilling and meaningful life.

In conclusion, as you celebrate your graduation, embrace the principles of growth, compassion, and understanding. Believe in your ability to overcome challenges, learn from your mistakes, and help others do the same. By doing so, you will not only achieve personal success but also contribute to a better, more compassionate world. Congratulations, graduates, and may your future be filled with growth and fulfillment.

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