Jewish learning Commencement 2020/5780: President’s Opening Remarks
To our graduates:
On behalf of your teachers, on behalf of the Hebrew College Board of Trustees, on behalf of the entire Hebrew College community, I am delighted to congratulate you today and to wish you a warm and heartfelt mazal tov.
To all those who have supported and sustained you, who have rooted you and who have rooted for you, spouses, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, children, mentors, colleagues, community members, friends, and chosen family. Thank you all and congratulations to all of you as well.
It is such a disappointment not to be able to gather with all of you in person this year. We know this is a heavy loss for you, who have looked forward to this day for so long. We very much hope that you will come back next year to celebrate in person, to be honored and recognized in the embrace of this community. And still, today, we are overflowing with gratitude, pride, and joy as we gather virtually to mark this milestone with all of you.
I want to invite you to think about these last three or four or five or six or more years of study at Hebrew College. Think about a teacher who has believed in you and helped you believe in yourself. Think about a piece of Torah you’ve learned that made your heart beat a little faster or made you ask a question you’d never thought of before.
Think about a moment of conversation that changed things a little — a moment of prayer. A moment of protest. A moment of song, A moment of silence.
Think about the work you’ve done in the community over these years. Think about a student who has been touched by your teaching someone for whom you have been a source of comfort or connection. Someone who felt outside and you invited in. Someone who felt unheard and you listened. Someone who has seen themselves reflected more fully and more lovingly through your eyes.
What I am asking you to do in this moment is, quite simply, to imagine. These last few months have called upon all of us in new ways. The coronavirus pandemic has confronted us with challenges –from the most intimate and personal to the most public and political — and has brought every one of us face to face with the awareness that the future is always and forever uncertain. And while we are all profoundly grateful for the virtual technology that has allowed us to continue to study and pray together, that allows us to celebrate together today, there is nothing virtual about the reality of our connections to one another. And there is nothing virtual about the world in need of your care, in need of your courage, compassion, and creativity. In need of your imagination.
The world all around you and within you is beautifully, mysteriously, achingly real. Please remember it is not just Zoom that allows us to stay connected when we’re physically apart. It is imagination. It is imagination that allows us to inhabit worlds outside of our own that allows the voices on the pages of our holy texts to mingle with the voices around the tables of our Beit Midrash, that allows us to pray to a God we can’t see or touch, that allows us to work for a world of dignity for all people.
It is imagination that allows us to remember. To know that we have not always been where we are right now. It is imagination that allows us to hope. To know that what we are feeling right now and what we are facing right now, will not last forever.
It is imagination that allows us to empathize with another human being — capacity so vital to every aspect of the work you will do.
In an extraordinary essay entitled Metaphor and Memory, Cynthia Ozick speaks about being invited to address a group of physicians. Someone involved in medical training had come up with the idea that it was important for doctors to increase their capacity to imagine the lives of their patients — and that she, a writer, an imaginer by trade — could help them do so.
Ozick writes: “It is the commandment of ahavat hager — love of the stranger — that converts memory into metaphor and takes us beyond the self, takes us beyond the bounds of the familiar, and asks us to imaginewhat it is like to be someone else.” You know the heart of the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
It is imagination that allows us to pursue justice. To know that the world as it is is not the only possibility. That there is another way. There is a better way for us to live with each other and to live with the earth that is our only home.
It is imagination that allows us to be both sustained and summoned by God, by our faith in a divine presence, that connects us all and holds each life as unique, sacred, and infinitely precious.
I’m asking you to imagine because you are stepping into the responsibilities of leadership in a moment that will call upon you to live and work from a place of great courage and compassion and creativity —and I believe that our capacity to do so depends deeply, urgently, on our capacity to imagine.
As I record this message, our country is in enormous pain. After months of physical isolation, fear, loss of life, loss of livelihood — disproportionately suffered by those already most vulnerable, by those whose bodies are black and brown, by those who have paid the biggest price for our collective failure of imagination and our collective flight from responsibility.
A little more than a week ago we witnessed the horrifying murder of a black man named George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. All the more horrifying because it was in the light of day, because we could all hear the voices of people pleading with him to stop. Because it was so far from the first time. Because we are still so far from answering — what will it take to make this one the last?
Even as I record this message, I don’t know what the days and weeks ahead will bring. None of us do. But we sense that we are in a moment of reckoning. May we not retreat from that reckoning.
Of all the images that have reached out and taken hold of my heart over the last few days, there is one that I can’t shake. Last week, Rabbi Michael Latz of Minneapolis wrote a letter describing the thousands of people who came out after the third night of protests to spend the day cleaning up their neighborhood, to begin fixing things that had been broken, helping each other in whatever way they could.
“As we said Kaddish,” he wrote, “and were on our way out, my oldest child pointed out a young African American boy sitting on his daddy’s shoulders. His shirt read simply, ‘My Life Matters.'”
Years ago, I heard the scholar Avivah Zornberg ask the question: Why do we cover our eyes when we recite the Sh’ma? Because she said, when we recite the Sh’ma we are being called upon to witness and testify to the oneness, the interconnectedness of all creation. If we open our eyes and look around, we will see so much terrible evidence to the contrary. Evidence of brokenness, fragmentation, disconnection. The Sh’ma asks us to close our eyes. Yo use our imaginations. To see what cannot be seen by the human eye — a life-giving God in whose eyes we are one. In whose eyes it is inconceivable, unimaginable that the life of any child, of any human being, does not matter.
And then we are asked — we are commanded actually — to keep going. To keep loving eyes wide open. To commit ourselves with everything we’ve got — B’chol levavcha u’v’chol nafshecha u’v’chol me’odecha (with all our hearts, with all our spirit, with all our strength) — to live in this oh-so-real world sitting at home, walking by the way, lying down, rising up, step by step, word by word, day by day. Bringing the world that we see a little closer to the world that might be.
I leave you with an image from this week’s Torah portion. The image of the seven-branched menorah, which was to be lit at all times in the tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. Eventually, this light came to be known as the Ner Tamid or perpetual light. To this day a special light is lit in every synagogue, fulfilling the Torah’s command to keep a light burning always.
The ner tamid is the light of imagination. The light of courage, compassion, and creativity. The light of God’s presence among us. This is the light that you have dedicated your lives to tending. The Itture Torah says that the “ner” of ner tamid can be understood as an acrostic for nefesh ruach. A soul with spirit. And every person must light the ner tamid in her own heart, not only in the tabernacle or the tent, but m’chutz laparochet, outside the curtain, in the street, and in the marketplace every day, with every one we meet.
May we continue to be part of each other’s lives, helping each other tend this light always.