Jonathan Muskat

Message to our graduates

Graduation season is underway! Graduation is a significant achievement that is valuable in a very practical way. Not only does it provide a sense of accomplishment and pride for the individual and his or her family and friends, but it often opens up new opportunities and career paths for individuals. Having a degree can make it easier to find employment and increase your earning potential.

However, graduation also is a time to reflect. If I am a student, then my graduation signifies the completion of an academic program which demonstrates my dedication, perseverance and hard work. There may have been times throughout my course of study when I slipped up and wasn’t at my best, but the fact that I am graduating means that I rose from setbacks along the way to move forward and reach this milestone. Graduation also tells us that small baby steps over a long period of time, even if they are not perfect, make a difference. Imagine if we applied this reflection to our religious life.

We are now reading the parshiyot of the Bnei Yisrael’s sojourn in the desert. For the most part, the Torah is silent about what happened in the desert. Yes, the Torah shares stories from the first few years in the desert such as the giving of the Torah, the sin of the golden calf, the building of the mishkan, the sin of the spies and the rebellion of Korach. The Torah also shares the stories from the final year of the desert such as Miriam’s death, Moshe hitting the rock, Bilaam’s attempt to curse the Bnei Yisrael, the sin of Ba’al Pe’or and Moshe’s major address at the end of his life. What happened in the intervening years? The Torah is silent. The Torah records one mitzvah between the events of the first few years in the desert and the events of the final year in the desert: the mitzvah of parah adumah, or the Red Heifer.

Why does the Torah record this particular mitzvah as the buffer between the first years and the final year in the desert? The reason is that our ancestors’ journey in the desert was a journey of parah adumah, a journey of purification. Just as a parah adumah purifies someone who is tamei, or ritually impure, the generation in the desert purified themselves and prepared themselves for forty years in the desert until they were worthy to conquer Eretz Yisrael.

Yirmiyahu shared with us a beautiful prophecy describing our faith during these years. He states (Yirmiyahu 2:2):

כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר יְקֹוָ֔ק זָכַ֤רְתִּי לָךְ֙ חֶ֣סֶד נְעוּרַ֔יִךְ אַהֲבַ֖ת כְּלוּלֹתָ֑יִךְ לֶכְתֵּ֤ךְ אַחֲרַי֙ בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר בְּאֶ֖רֶץ לֹ֥א זְרוּעָֽה

I remember for the affection of your youth, the love of your betrothed, how you went after Me in the wilderness in a land that was not sown.

In fact, in the fortieth year in the desert when the Bnei Yisrael ran out of water after Miriam died, they told Moshe (Bamidbar 20:5):

וְלָמָ֤ה הֶֽעֱלִיתֻ֙נוּ֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם לְהָבִ֣יא אֹתָ֔נוּ אֶל־הַמָּק֥וֹם הָרָ֖ע הַזֶּ֑ה לֹ֣א׀ מְק֣וֹם זֶ֗רַע וּתְאֵנָ֤ה וְגֶ֙פֶן֙ וְרִמּ֔וֹן וּמַ֥יִם אַ֖יִן לִשְׁתּֽוֹת:

Why did you take us out from Egypt to bring us to this bad place? It’s not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates. There’s not even water to drink.

Water is an afterthought in their complaint. What was their primary concern? Grain, figs, vines and pomegranates – the special species of Eretz Yisrael. They no longer wanted to return to Egypt like the previous generation did when times were tough. They wanted to go to Eretz Yisrael. This is a different generation with a different set of priorities.

During the 38 intermediate years in the desert when there are no stories mentioned in the Torah, Bnei Yisrael experienced the purification symbolized by the parah adumah. There was no prophecy during this time and no stories of note. There was only a disciplined faith of following God.

Imagine if we lived our lives appreciating the journey of the Bnei Yisrael in the desert as the key to achieving real purification in our lives. Imagine if we internalized the notion that service of God requires the daily grind, day in and day out, year in and year out. May the celebration of graduation and the silent years of our ancestors in the desert inspire us to remain disciplined in our religious growth over the long term and patient with ourselves even if we do not see immediate change in ourselves from one day to the next. Graduation is a time for us to appreciate, thousands of years after our ancestors journeyed in the desert from Egypt to Eretz Yisrael, that after years of commitment down a bumpy road with ups and downs, we are indeed different people.

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