Charge to Yavneh’s Class of 2019:
“It was the summer of 1968. The summer of Love. I was 9 years old, visiting the London branch of my family for the first time. My cousins were very excited to show me around the city. I remember the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, and boisterous Barnaby Street – full of teenagers with long hair, and colorful clothes, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band playing in the background. I stuck close to my cousins, since I was only 9 and I didn’t know my way around the city.
I did have a weakness for sweets. And England had different candy in those days than America. Cadbury hadn’t really made it over to the US, I discovered smarties which were a weird version of large M&M’s with a harder candy shell… As we were walking somewhere around Marble Arch, I got distracted by a sweet aroma which led me to a colorful, window display of a candy store.
When I turned around, my family was gone.
There I was, alone on a bustling London street. Cell phones had not been invented yet, and while there were red telephone booths on every corner, I did not have any money to pay for a phone call, I didn’t have anyone’s phone number nor even their address. I’m not sure that I even knew my cousins’ last name. I panicked. Fortunately, there was a woman who saw me looking lost, a stranger who told me that everything would be alright. She walked me over to a police officer, a bobby in a funny tall hat. Then the woman left me and walked up a few blocks until she saw an equally panicked family – searching for something. She approached them, and inquired if the something they had lost was me. Within a few minutes, we were reunited.
I like to tell myself that everything happens for a reason. Perhaps I got lost on the streets of London fifty-one years ago so that I could tell this story today and charge you, our graduates, with lessons I learned from that experience? So here I go:
First, it’s ok to have passions – like my childhood obsession with candy, but remember to be mindful. Don’t get too distracted. Be open and aware of the greater world around you. Media – phones, laptops, and other electronic devices, as you know, are powerful tools for learning and communication – they can also be incredibly distracting – you can easily lose purpose and direction. At school, your teachers have been helping some of you by removing your screens when they were distracting you from accomplishing the task at hand. Now it’s your turn to take control of your own screen-time. Every minute of your day is precious – and downtime is important as well.
Your parents and teachers can try to help you, but ultimately, it’s up to you to take responsibility. You know what is appropriate and what is not, make wise choices in your engagement with electronic media, and know when to turn it off.
One of the gifts that you are receiving today is one volume of the Talmud, a compilation of debates and conversations of our ancient sages. In this and many other sacred texts from the Jewish canon are teachings that can be interpreted to relate both to my straying from my cousins and to your futures:
Al tifrosh min hatsibur – Do not separate yourself from the community. May Hillel’s words inspire you to find your people and stick with your people. Invest in friendships and nourish relationships. And if they stop being your people, find new people.
“B’makom she’ein anashim, heyeh adam”: Hillel also teaches us that in a place where no one is being a mensch, be a mensch. While it is important to belong to a community. Don’t allow yourself to be swayed by majority opinion. Be respectful of people whose opinions differ, hear them out and try to understand their point. Be open to the fact that they may be right. And at the same time remember that a different opinion is not necessarily a valid one. Stay true to your values. Stand up for what you believe both through your words and actions.
Sometimes you might feel that you are not a part of your own community. The post rabbinic commentator, Rabbi Charles Schultz in the book of Peanuts teaches: You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. Most of us saw the Yavneh musical the other week.
While his community tells Charlie Brown that he is a good man, he is the only one in his community who doesn’t get a Valentine – even his dog Snoopy gets one. Girls stand right in front of him and draw on a paper bag that he is wearing, without acknowledging his presence. It is important to remember that everyone has times when they feel like Charlie Brown, transparent, excluded, an outsider. During those moments, try to be your own best friend and take care of yourself, and then play an active role in finding your way back into community. Of course, always be aware and on the lookout for others who may be experiencing their own Charlie Brown moments. Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh La Zeh. You are responsible for your community. The Talmud reminds us to be aware of the needs of others. Be sensitive and welcoming. Help build community.
The final Talmudic lesson: “Whoever saves a single life, is considered to have saved an entire world.” Each one of you is an individual who possesses superpowers. Just look at the graduation photo on the program cover – a master chef, talented performance artists, a creative author, super athletes, and skilled engineers. Graduates, always remember that your true power does not come from your skills nor from your physical strength. Your power comes from the individual acts of kindness that you perform. Be that random stranger, who went out of her way to reunite me with my cousins. I will never know her identity, but she will always be a superhero to me. Random, small acts of kindness have the power to fix the world in which we live. Instead of focusing on being popular or being funny, practice gemilut hasadim. Be kind.
I will close with a quote that is attributed to the late Golda Meir, former prime minister of the State of Israel:
‘Trust Yourself. Create the kind of self that you will be happy to live with all your life. Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.’
To the class of 2019 and others who are continuing their educational journey elsewhere, I wish you the best of luck! Everyone else: I look forward to welcoming you back to school on August 20th. We have a great year in store for us all! I wish you a fun, adventure-filled, restorative and restful summer vacation. Shabbat Shalom -Zvi