Tonight, we celebrate our high school seniors and the Confirmation class of 5782. They are a remarkably talented, thoughtful, and dedicated group of young people. I am proud that my youngest daughter Ellie is among the class of 2022 and will be heading off to college at the end of the summer.
It’s special that we celebrate these occasions on Shabbat Emor, when the book of Leviticus reminds us of the set times God has established for holidays and festivals. Each of the sacred occasions mentioned this week demands we step away from the normal flow of regular days, and use the sacred rest to think more deeply on some element of our spiritual journeys.
Graduations mark an end of an era in a student’s life. For some, graduation marks not only the end of one’s years in high school or college but also the end of living primarily at home, or the end of one’s formal education, or the end of years of competitive sports or the arts.
Like Passover or Sukkot, the ritual of graduation affords us opportunities to look back at our children’s journeys with awe, wonder, appreciation and gratitude. Rummaging through pictures in photo albums and on the computer gives us over to time-travel, revisiting moments of joy and discovery, and also times of pain, injury, anguish, and even loss. We marvel at their evolution and growth – in mind, body, and soul.
But I love that graduation is called “commencement” – harkening to new beginnings. Graduation implies elevation – a rising beyond who we’ve been to new heights: higher education, an elevated sense of consciousness, personal responsibility, moral agency, and an empowered sense of self.
As our children move onward and upward into this next phase of their lives, we want for them to embrace the opportunities that will come. Noted author Brene Brown told her children she wanted them “to major in curiosity” – to use this time to explore their interests, passions, ideas.
We want them to work hard and to play hard – to enjoy and have fun. We want them to form meaningful relationships with new mentors and friends.
We want them to learn … a lot – not simply the skills to pursue a career, but to be educated and worldly, to think deeply and critically, and to be fascinated by art, music, and ideas.
We want them to delve deeper into understanding who they are and what they believe, to appreciate their responsibilities and duty to their community, their people, their nation, and our world, and to do their best to discover their individual sense of mission and purpose.
We want them to stay rooted to family, to stay true to their Jewish heritage and religious traditions. We want them to develop a strong moral core and to grow to be decent, kind, compassionate people, with good character and deep commitment to ethics and integrity.
And so, if that’s what we want for our children, then we need to be even more committed to wanting all this … for ourselves. We too are graduating. We are moving onward and upward from the active parenting stage of life into a new phase of our journey.
So shouldn’t we also use this time to learn … a lot? Shouldn’t we also major in curiosity, to explore new interests or recommit to former passions? Shouldn’t we also engage in a process of introspection and reflection, delving deeper into what we believe, examining what ought to be our commitments to community, people, nation, and our world? Shouldn’t we be rewriting our own mission statements and discovering new purposes for this time in our lives?
This is the time for us to root ourselves more deeply in our Jewish commitments, using this time to really explore the religious questions we never gave ourselves the chance to investigate. This is the time for us to cultivate more regular spiritual practice and to heed the admonition of our sages to make time for study and spiritual growth.
Is it fair to ask our children to commit to everything we want them to embrace in their next phase of life, if in our next phase, we don’t commit to the same?
Graduation days are holy days – sacred opportunities to look back with gratitude and to look forward with anticipation. And for those who will don cap and gown, and those who will celebrate with them, let us be inspired to rise.