2020 Graduation Message from Tilly

2020 Graduation Message from Tilly

What a time and way to be saying goodbye.

Just as it was so strange for you to be celebrating this occasion from your living rooms around the world, so too was it strange for us – your Hillel staff – to watch you celebrate from afar. Usually at this time of year, I reflect on how grateful I have been for the past four years of being up close, with a front row seat, to witness our graduating seniors’ growth, moments of leadership, challenges, and celebrations. And I am truly grateful for that gift. So this year, I too was surprised to have that time cut short and to miss out on the last moments of celebration on campus from my front row seat with all of you. I’m so proud of all the ways you have pivoted with such strength, resilience, humor and joy to celebrate this moment to the fullest extent you can. 

This is not how any of us imagined your four years with us would end. The environment, the celebration, the people we’re surrounded by are all different than what we expected. Graduation is always a bittersweet time for our students and our staff. It may feel like we have so many more emotions added on because of the time we are in. But actually, I think it’s the same bittersweet emotion that simply feels heightened right now. So let’s lean into that emotion together.

Bittersweet is such a strange feeling to hold because of its inherent contradiction. But there is something about holding the bitter and the sweet together that not just balances but brings out the flavor of each. I think about this during Passover when we combine the bitterness of maror with the sweetness of the charoset. The sweetness of the charoset makes the bitterness that much sharper. Yet the bitterness is not only cut by the sweetness, but the sweetness feels that much sweeter because of the contrast to the bitter taste. It’s as if each is heightened by its opposite. I feel like when I have those two flavors in my mouth, I have an opportunity to make a choice. Will I focus on the sharpness of the bitter, or will I focus on the power of the sweetness to overcome the other flavor?

In my Cultivate Your Inner Mensch class on gratitude, we talk about hakarat hatov – recognizing the good. The first step is to simply open your eyes and heart to be able to see the good all around you. The next is to feel the good heightened because you’ve experienced something challenging – to really appreciate the sweetness of charoset because it comes alongside the maror. The last is to see that even in the darkness, there is good to be grateful for.

There is an unfortunate fellow in the Talmud named Nahum of Gam Zu. The reason why he was called this is because no matter what happened, he would say “Gam Zu Le’Tovah” – this too is for the good. He has a pretty rough life and bad stuff just seems to keep happening to him. But every time something bad happens, he says gam zu le’tovah and it seems that the terrible thing that is happening to him somehow saves his life or brings him even greater fortune down the road. He has an extraordinary sense of faith that even when something feels really hard, there is something good that will come from that experience.

Often in a difficult moment, we use the expression “Gam Ze Ye’avor” – this too shall pass – to get through it. We say this to reassure ourselves that things will get better. But there’s something in that expression about just riding out the moment until we get to the other side that seems lacking right now.

What does it take to shift from “this too shall pass” to “this too is for the good”? I have no doubt we are going to get through this challenging time. I just wonder how we are going to perceive this time.

Let me acknowledge, graduation and the last months of school and this transition to your next stage of life should have been something entirely different. And that just sucks. I’m with you.

What if we don’t just see this as a time that is holding us back or separating us from others or something to endure until it passes? What if we pause and say “this too is for the good” and seek out the inherent good in this moment from which we can learn and grow?

I can’t tell you what is the good you will see in this time. But I’m going to challenge you to try to find that yourself and share that with me and others. Speak it out loud and acknowledge it. I’m going to try first and share with you the good I am seeing right now.

For me, this time reinforces what I already know but don’t usually have time to acknowledge. Something that we teach in Hillel every day but don’t always say explicitly. And that is: relationships are the most important thing.

In all of the lessons we teach and learn at Hillel on welcoming students – whether it’s how to host shabbat at home, how to take a student for coffee, how to respect someone else’s views or practices when they differ from your own, how to greet someone at services, how to make someone feel included – all of these lessons come down to the same thing – relationships matter. Our relationships and the community that they build are the most important part of our work. I am confident that even through this most challenging time, it is our relationships that will not only endure but will ultimately be strengthened.

So my blessing for you as you head off into this uncertain time, is not only that the sweet will overcome the bitter and will be even more heightened in your life. But that you are able to see the good that is emerging for you in this time. Gam Zu Le’Tovah – this too is for the good. What is the good that will emerge for you?