dedicated in honor of Avi Staum’s graduation from the Yeshiva of Spring Valley
“And let me conclude, dear graduates, by saying that, as you go forth from the hallowed halls of our institution, know that life bears many vicissitudes and unknowns. But fear not! The educational fortitude you have received during your years here will stand for you in good stead. We are confident that you will be able to proceed into the vagaries of life with conviction and fortitude and to accomplish great things. Know this: The world is now open before you and you can become anything and do anything. Dream big, graduates, pursue your dreams, and make us proud.”
End of pontification. Time for crowd to wake up and applaud politely.
“You can be anything you set your mind to be” is one of the great lies often touted. It sounds nice, but it’s simply not true!
The hackneyed graduation message can be chalked together with the message of entrepreneurs who have become incredibly successful. In podcasts and articles, they tell us that if they were able to do it, so can you – and it’s as simple as following their three- or four-step plan. Just purchase their book or program and, before you know it, you’ll be fabulously wealthy, too. Then you’ll be able to peddle the same lie, about being able to procure quick and easy wealth, to others.
The reality is that there is a predestined path for every one of us. We are not amorphous entities ready to be shaped into anything we desire. We are granted unique and particular personalities, talents, and limitations. The family and community into which we were born, as well as the generation into which we were born, both shape and limit the trajectory of our lives.
When a five-year-old is asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he may reply that he’s going to become a fireman, policeman, and doctor, and possibly invest in real estate or become an entrepreneur on the side.
Part of maturity is recognizing that we are limited in the choices we can make. In addition, every choice we make is an act of exclusion, choosing one thing is to the exclusion of everything else. Many people have a significantly hard time making choices because they are hard-pressed to close the door on all other possibilities.
Our biggest challenge is more about how we deal with the cards we are dealt, than about choosing the cards we are dealt.
This week, 30 Sivan, is the yahrzeit of my Bubby, Rebbetzin Fruma (Frances) Kohn a”h. I was blessed to have my Bubby for the first four decades of my life and that my children knew her, if even slightly. In her youth, my Bubby and most of her family survived Siberia and the horrors of World War II. After being liberated from Siberia, she met my Zeide and eventually made their way together to the United States.
A few years later, my Zeide was offered to be the rabbi of the prestigious Slonimer Shul on the Lower East Side. At first, my Bubby cried at the mere prospect of becoming the rebbetzin of a sizeable congregation. It wasn’t what she had “signed up for.” But eventually she embraced it and fulfilled the role for two decades with aplomb. She would cook each week for Shabbos, never knowing how many guests would return home with my Zeide from shul. Their apartment was a welcoming place for all different types of Jews. It’s amazing how much delicious food and warmth emanated from that minuscule kitchen on the Lower East Side.
I should add that, in the 1970s, the shul’s membership dwindled until the shul was forced to close its doors and sell the building. After that, my Zeide became a kashrus mashgiach.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve often wondered how hard that must have been for my grandparents. I was born well after my Zeide had left the rabbinate. My memories of him are of his ever-present warmth and sense of humor. If there was any bitterness, no one ever saw it.
The real question in life is how we respond to each situation. My grandparents came from a generation that had far fewer choices than we are privy to. Though we may have more options, we, too, often find ourselves in different situations than we had envisioned for ourselves.
We may not be able to be anything and everything we want to be. But we can choose how we proceed in every circumstance and what our attitude and perspective is.
Perhaps the more accurate message we can convey to our graduates is:
“Dear Graduates: The serpentine paths of life may not always lead you where you expected. Nevertheless, we are confident that you will be able to proceed into the vagaries of life with conviction and fortitude and to accomplish great things. Dream big, graduates, pursue your dreams. But remember that even when our dreams are not fulfilled, Hashem is leading us on a path that is tailor-made for our greatest growth and spiritual accomplishment.”