Mazel tov! Congratulations, graduates. Congratulations to the families! Congratulations to the friends! Congratulations to the communities!
Why am I congratulating everyone?
In Leviticus 19:2, the Torah states, “Speak to the entire community of Israel and tell them to be holy, for I, the Lord, am holy.” In general, Moses didn’t directly teach the entire nation; there was a system of teachers. Why did G-d want this command to be different?
Nachmanides explains that the directive to be holy warns us against becoming a “menuval birshus haTorah,” a disgrace within the parameters of the Torah. One can technically keep many of the laws of G-d but, at the same time, corrupt them and completely undermine the spirit of those laws.
If a person lives in a society that isn’t supportive of his values, it becomes very difficult for him to maintain his ideals. Perhaps the command to be holy was given openly to the entire nation since it’s crucial to have the support of others.
I congratulate everyone because, whenever a person accomplishes something, it is very rarely, if ever, an achievement that he could have done on his own, and while he should feel great about his success, he also needs to recognize and appreciate those who have helped him reach that milestone.
What is the celebration of a graduation? I decided to google, “Why am I excited to graduate?” Some top reasons were: to get away, have my own space, cook for myself and expand my network. While some of these are reasonable at best, they hardly seem worthy of all the celebration.
So, what is it?
“You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall reprove your fellow, and do not bear a sin because of him (Leviticus 19:17).” The Targum Onkelos translates the final phrase as, “and do not receive a punishment for his sin.” According to the Targum, it appears that if I didn’t rebuke my friend, I would be punished for his sin. How do I become responsible for the sin that he perpetrated?
The Kli Yakar writes: Imagine a man is on an ocean voyage. He hears a sound coming from the cabin next door. As the noise continues, he finally knocks on his neighbor’s door. When the door opens, he sees that his neighbor is drilling a hole in the side of the boat.
“What are you doing?” the man cries.
“I’m drilling a hole in my side of the boat.”
“Why? This is my cabin. I paid for it, and I can do what I want here.”
“No, you can’t! If you cut a hole in your side, the entire boat will go down.”
We are one entity. For a person to say, “What I do is my business and doesn’t affect anyone else,” is categorically false. My actions affect you, and your actions affect me; we are one unit.
The Targum is teaching us the extent of that connection. What my friend does directly affects me – not because I am nosy, but because we are one entity, and I am liable for what he does. A member of my team erred, and I could have prevented his mistake. If I have done all that I could to help him grow and shield him from falling, I have met my obligation and will not be punished. If, however, I could have been more concerned for his betterment and more involved in helping to protect him from harm, then I am held accountable for his sin.
Graduation is the celebration of what has been accomplished until now and of all the potential that is waiting to be realized. In a certain sense, a graduate becomes a more active member of society, and the more responsibility he feels, the more he will accomplish and enjoy life.
Reb Bunim of P’shischa is quoted as having said that when he was young, he thought he could change the entire world. As he got older, he saw he could not change the entire world, but at least he could change his city. As time went on, he saw that even that was beyond his grasp, but he thought that he would be able to change his neighborhood. When he saw that was not working, he said, “I’ll attempt to change my family.” When that too failed, he said, “I’ll have to try only to change myself.”
But once Reb Bunim succeeded in changing himself, he saw that his family was different, his neighborhood was different, his city was different, and, in a sense, the entire world was different.
We cannot go it alone. We need to work on ourselves, and then our families, and then our neighborhoods and then our societies.
RABBI NAFTALI L. KARP is the director of Project Shoresh of RI. To subscribe to his short weekly email or to contact him, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 401-632-3165.