Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Message to the Graduates (and that means all of us)

This week's portion, Shelach Lecha, contains within it the worst commencement address ever given. This being that commencement-time-of-year, you probably know the basic formula for the typical graduation speech: "Go get 'em. You can overcome all odds, no matter how great. Believe in yourself and the future is yours."

Twelve spies were sent out by Moses to scout out the Land. Ten of the twelve returned with a message that would have sent any school superintendent's head spinning. "Don't even bother to try to succeed out there," they reported. "These people are men of great size. We saw...we saw...Nefilim there! Anakim! And we looked like grasshoppers to them."

Who were these Nefilim and Anakim that terrorized the spies. Were they some mythical race of giants? Were they real people? Did Michael Strahan exist at that time? Or was it merely a matter of hyperbole: the spies saw no chance of victory, so they concocted an exaggerated tale to back strengthen their case. Whether or not these obstacles were real or perceived, the sin of the spies led to the Israelites' having to wander in the Wilderness for 40 years, and the sin had less to do with overestimating the size of the opponent as in underestimating their own abilities.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk commented, "It is all right in the presence of giants to say that you feel like a grasshopper. But it is terribly mistaken, even a sin, to presume that you look like a grasshopper to them."

We all discount ourselves at times, but the real problem occurs when that subjective observation is allowed to become objective truth. Growth became impossible for the Children of Israel after the report of the spies, and the 40 years of wandering wasn't so much a punishment as the natural outgrowth of their national paralysis.

Paralyzed is how we all feel when the child in each of us is thrown into very adult situations. We feel unprepared, unfit, small. And there is no scarier time than when your name is called and you rise to grab hold of the diploma, that paper sword with which you're expected to slay all the Nefilim wandering about in your path.

My ordination from rabbinical school is case in point. That afternoon 25 years ago, I sat in a pew at the Park Avenue Synagogue next to a score of classmates, listening to the obligatory charges, some of which were Talmudic in both in content and length. There was plenty of time to think. Too much. I looked down the row at my classmates. Were they feeling, as I was, the awesome weight of the moment? Were they questioning, as I was, the five-year investment that had been made and the life-long investment that was about to be made? Were they also beginning to sense the awakening of that demon of the deep that rises from the pit of the stomach at times like these, then proceeds to make mincemeat of the esophagus -- that feeling of utter incompetence?

This feeling was exacerbated by the prevailing notion fostered at the Seminary that the last generation of teachers was always more revered than the current one. The classical Jewish view teaches “the decline of the generations” — since Sinai we have grown further from revelation and stand, as a result, on a lower level of holiness. My teachers were the giants their’s all the greater - and we were grasshoppers, in their eyes and our own.

As I rose to heed my calling, I took comfort in the knowledge that I was not alone. All over the city that day, people were rising to the call of their names: doctors pledging the oath of Hippocrates, psychologists joining the ranks of Freud and Jung. And we all were grasshoppers on this day, afraid of giant obstacles, unsure where fate would take us. But not afraid to hop.

Sure enough, when Israel finally did invade the Land, the inhabitants there were terrified of them. Joshua's army was able to defeat many of them without a fight. Think of how easily the walls of Jericho came tumbling down.

So now I speak to you, the class of 2008 -- and all of us are graduating from something this month; if not, create a milestone for yourself and leap beyond it. Never fear freedom. Never stop growing. Never turn back. Slay those dark Nefilim of childhood. Dare them to make your day. Because, when all is said and done, you might be the true giant after all.

No comments: