The Common Good

The Graduation Speech I Wish I Could Give

Image by Andresr /shutterstock.
Image by Andresr /shutterstock.

I have a son who started kindergarten this year, even though at times he acts like he is a college student. Recently, his teacher challenged a group of us parents saying, “You shouldn’t worry about what your kids will become. But you should be concerned with who they will become.”

I'd issue the same challenge to this year's college graduates: Forget about your career and what you will become. Don’t worry that your grade in bio-statistics, or geology or the Amazing World of Bubbles (a real course) won’t land you that great job. It’s probably not that great anyway.

Whether you wake up tomorrow to a fantastic internship or to waiting tables doesn’t really matter. For now, just focus on who you are going to become.

Your dream may be to one day own an amazing summer home, but “service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth,” as a mentor of mine likes to say.

Choose carefully those with whom you surround yourself. Pay attention to that which you pursue with all your heart, all your soul and all your might -- and to what compromises you are willing to make in that pursuit. Make those compromises judiciously and with reflection, because when they all add up, you may realize that you’ve become someone you don’t recognize.

Who you will become is determined in large part not by what you acquire, but by what you give -- and how you give of yourself.

Make it a habit now to give back to your community and your world. Make your service a part of your routine. Because as you get older and your time is stretched thinner, making space for others becomes more difficult.

And have patience. For most of us, it takes nearly a decade for the clay footings of a career to become cement. 

Though you may not have found that entryway into the career of your dreams, use what you’ve learned already. Use your degree in literature to help a young person learn to read, your business management degree to help run a local shelter or take your foreign language skills to a far-off place by joining the Peace Corps.

Modern Jewish folklore tells a story about a young rabbi who was hired to work in a town in Eastern Europe. On his first day in town, a town leader gave him a tour of the village.

Passing by the cemetery, where all of the town’s rabbis were buried, something became frighteningly clear. According to their headstones, his rabbinical predecessors seemed to have died at young ages, 27, 25, 22. Not one had survived past 28.

The new rabbi started to sweat, believing the community was so difficult that it was killing off its rabbis before they hit their 30s.

Sensing the young rabbi’s growing panic, his guide explained the community’s custom: Each person keeps a notebook and records how many hours they spent in service of God and in service of others -- the number of hours living spent giving instead of taking.

“And then at the end of a person’s life we add up all of those hours, and that is the number we put on their headstone,” he said pointing at the numbers – 27, 25, 22.

The numbers on the gravestones, he explained, did not represent the years of these rabbis’ lives, rather the number of years they truly lived their lives by helping others. “All of these rabbis died in their late 80s or 90s,” he said.

People who dedicate their lives to something larger than themselves have learned that the dates of one’s birth and death are far less important than the long dash in between. Make these people your teachers and your friends. Marry them. Or just be one of them.

Because in the end, there are those who take even when they are giving, and those who give even when they are taking. Now is the time to start deciding: Which are you? And who do you want to be?

Legend teaches that each morning when we wake, we are given the world anew. And each night as we go to sleep we must return it. When we do, our Creator asks us, “What did you do with my creation today? Did you add to my world or diminish it?”

My hope for the Class of 2012 is that you live at the intersection of your greatest gifts and the world’s greatest needs. And when you look back on your life and who you became you can say without hesitation, “I added to the world.”

Rabbi Will Berkovitz is the senior vice president of Repair the World, a national organization that seeks to make service a defining element of American Jewish life. Via RNS

IMAGE: Andresr/shutterstock.

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