As a soon-to-be empty nester, I had the honor of giving the d’var last week at Temple Aliyah’s send-off to our next group of college-bound teens.
Here we are, in Ki Tietzei, the 6th parhsa of Deuteronomy. And there are only give more to go. Things are about to change. In a few weeks, the Israelites will enter the Promised Land, leaving Moses behind. They will go on their journey without him. In fact, to prove their worth, to prove they are a holy people, a light unto nations, they must go on without him.
We all know the story. And as we build to the finale of our journey thru the desert, what do we get? A chapter full of rules.
There are rules for just about everything. Rules for what to do with a beautiful woman you see after a victorious battle. For what to do if you love one of your wives more than another. Rules for how to treat a disobedient son….a really disobedient son.
Rules for what to do when a sheep or ox wanders onto your property. Rules for what to do with a fallen bird’s. Rules for roofing, Rules for planting. Rules for not mixing seeds, plow animals or even wool and linen.
Rules for divorce. Rules if you marry a wife who turns out not to be virgin. Rules for adultery and rape. Rules for which enemies you can forgive and which you can’t. Rules abut slavery and prostitution. Rules about lending money and keeping promises and how much you can eat when you are walking through someone’s fields. There are rules about fairness in business and family. And the last rule is Do not forget.
Do not forget what Amalek did to you when you were on the road from Egypt.
So many rules.
On this, the Shabbat, where we ask for blessings and celebrate all of our sons and daughters who are heading off to college, I understand all too well the desire to impart rules to those who are moving on to a place where we won’t be going with them.
So, while God has not revealed any of these rules to me, I’d like to share five rules I wish I could force each and everyone to obey.
First, have fun.
College was one of the most enjoyable, exciting times of my life. Make sure it is for you too. Now, let me be perfectly clear (and because your parents are listening, too), this is not carte blanche to rock and roll all day and partay every night. It is a command to savor all the new experiences that are waiting for you. Visit a professor. Go to a concert or play or performance that is totally out of your comfort zone. Have fun by being open to new ideas and new people and new experiences. Learn lots of new stuff. And laugh a lot too. There’s nothing wrong if one of your favorite memories of the year is laughing so hard with a good friend that tears come to your eyes and maybe even a drop of pee or two in your undies.
Rule 2: Grow up.
You’re not a kid anymore. You really are starting life on your own. To pull it off, you’ve got to grow up. You’ve got to take responsibility for yourself and for those around you. You will need to learn to deal with roommates, dirty laundry, loud neighbors, strict professors, large impersonal classes, feeding yourself, dressing yourself, and getting yourself up on time. This is all part of growing up. And that’s the easiest part. The tough part of growing up is getting to know who your truest self is and who you want to be. It won’t happen all at once. But it will happen. Don’t be afraid of it. Welcome it.
Third rule. Learn.
Learn all about anything and everything that interests you. Get to class, take notes, do your homework, ask questions. Believe it or not, taking an active role in your classes will help with rules one and two. It will make the classes more fun and you will find yourself growing up without even realizing it. College is outrageously expensive these days so get every cent out of it…both in and outside the classroom.
Fourth rule. Be nice.
Everyone in this room can be a pigheaded brat sometime. And when it happens, we all know it and regret it. But, you know what? There are very few occasions I can remember where I regret being nice to someone. Even times when I forced my self to be nice and just wanted to yell and scream at someone. Be nice to your roommate. Be nice to your lab and studio mates. Be nice to the custodians and cafeteria people. Whether you’re the smartest person in your classes or major or even dorm room is beyond your control. You probably can’t make yourself into the most popular or most handsome or beautiful or most athletic or most anything. But you can be the most nice. And that’s not bad role to play.
Now, for my last rule, which I’m going to borrow from today’s parsha.
Rule five: Do not forget.
Now it isn’t Amalek I hope you never forget. It’s something much more important than that.
Never forget this place and all these people.
Of course, you can’t forget your parents though sometimes we wish we could. Never forget all of us….never forget your rabbis and cantors, your teachers and friends, all the bar and bat mitzvahs you went too, all the silly prizes you won and how awkward it feels to be a gawky tweenager. Never forget the times your parents dragged you here and though you would never, ever admit it, being here wasn’t all that bad. Look around and never forget all the faces of people whose names you do not know and whose faces you only recognize as someone from shul…but never forget that at this moment, right now, right here, everyone in this room wishes you nothing but joy and success and good health… ok, and good grades too. And, yes, we admit it, it wouldn’t bother any us if one of you became a doctor and another maybe a rabbi or teacher or a great art therapist or screenwriter.
You see, there are so many rules I could ask you to follow but I would be a hypocrite if I did. In my four years at UMass, I never once went to Hillel. For over a decade, my observance was simply coming home and being with my family for the high holidays (and inviting my friends over for dinner, of course).
For many, many years during and after college when I went to services on the high holidays and it was primarily to just hang around outside, taking in the scene and catching up friends, (like I still do, truth be told).
But no matter how far I drifted away, I always, always knew…I never forgot…that I was proudly, deeply Jewish in my beliefs, my values and my world view. I always knew it mattered to me and, that for better or worse, it made me who I have always been and always will be. And even when I was dating women who weren’t Jewish, I always knew (and they did too) that my kids would be raised Jewish. I never, ever forgot who I was and what had shaped me, and that on some fundamental, genetic, undeniable level, whether I followed any traditional observances or not…I was proudly Jewish.
Now, that was a choice I made…a worldview I adopted…a perspective I proudly admit to. And as much as I wish I could make it so, you can’t make having that type outlook a rule. It’s a choice, not a commandment.
I can’t give you any rules about how many times a semester you should go for Shabbat dinner somewhere or check out an Israeli rock band or Middle East political forum. I can’t tell you that after five weeks in college or five years after you graduate, you will be Jewish the same way you are now. I don’t think any of us will be.
This is all I really want to say to you as you head off on what I hope will be an amazing, story-filled next chapter (stories that I hope you will tell me even if you don’t want to tell your parents!!!!). During college and for many years after, I drifted away from Jewish observance. But I always knew where my anchor was.
And yours will always be here…look around. You have no idea how deeply proud everyone in this room is of you and how full of hope our hearts are for you whether we even know your name, college or major. You are heading off to your promised lands (or at least campuses) and we watch you march forward with so much love and hope.
I’ll be honest, some of the rules in today’s Parsha never made sense to me. Until now. As the Israelites and Moses are preparing to part ways, these rules make a lot more sense to me now than they ever did before in my life.
Moses may not be with you. And neither will mom and dad. So let’s go over these five rules again:
Have fun, grow up, learn some new things, be nice, and most of all never forget where you come from. You won’t believe how helpful it can be to get you where you want to go.
Shabbat shalom and mazal tov!
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