On the 43rd day of the Omer I asked a child how many days there were to go. He immediately answered that 37 days remained. In response to my inquiry about his calculations, he excitedly announced that there were 37 days left to the school year! While all of us–he included–were counting down to the monumental day of receiving the Torah, he was also counting the days until he would be absolved of learning the very same Torah in the formal school environment! Interestingly, his response immediately reminded me of the actions of Klal Yisroel after they received the Torah. Chazal tell us that Klal Yisroel ran away from Har Sinai like a young child runs away from school. At this time of year, when we celebrate the milestone of graduation and the conclusion of another stage in life, the question we must ask ourselves is, “Where are we going next?”
If the purpose of life is to grow to our potential, the celebration of graduation must be one of a beginning and not an end. So many children finish their years in yeshiva and then proceed to subsequent states in life without setting their GPS devices to the proper destination. So many children finish yeshiva and are lacking the skills and/or desire to continue their growth in learning – in quality or quantity. So many young men and women finish their studies in Israel with a fire in their souls and a determination to make concrete changes in their attitudes towards Torah and mitzvos, yet return to autopilot and a journey-without-a-destination, within a matter of months. A parent approached me with tears in his eyes, asking how he could have paid $420,000 in tuition – 3 years in yeshiva in New York and two years of study in Israel – only to have his child shed Torah and mitzvos – including Shabbos observance – in only four months in college. What went wrong?
This heart-wrenching question is not a new one. Unfortunately, this is the pattern we have modeled for our children as we, and they, experienced Jewish events throughout the year. When the 25 hours of Yom Kippur are over and we have cleansed our souls with real teshuva, how long does the spiritual elevation remain? In one yeshiva I attended, it was customary to start Shachris the morning after Yom Kippur a minute early so that learning would then start a minute earlier; Yom Kippur would have been worth it if only to incorporate the extra minute of learning on the day after the fast. Forty days of teshuva, two weeks of selichos, ten days of repentance, 25 hours of fasting and fervent prayers… and all we have to show for it upon “graduation” is one minute of learning? Yes, because each minute, every moment has value.
Completion of a process and graduation is only successful if the next stage in life is begun immediately and successfully. It is so easy to go back to the autopilot of hergel, our rote, automatic actions, reacting to life and our surroundings instead of living a life of contemplative decision making and thought-out responses. This pattern unfortunately follows us throughout the year. We build a sukkah and brave the elements for eight days, and what do we take with us when we graduate the holiday? We spend time and money to purchase the four species, and what do we take from the mitzvah after seven days of blessing the lulav and esrog?
Preparing for Pesach, we clean our homes, search our houses for every last crumb, and change our dishes, but do we have cleaner souls upon graduation, or are we only left with a few extra potato-starch induced pounds? We become habituated to going through life by doing the routines of mitzvos and Torah study, but do we reach the level of “lilmod al minas la’asos,” study for the purpose of making real changes in our actions? When we allow ourselves to perform by habit, when we don’t use our religious experiences as a springboard from growth, when we don’t use our performance of mitzvos as an opportunity to connect to Hashem, ourselves and our community, then we risk alienating ourselves from it all when we are in a new environment and our routines do not come naturally.