We are celebrating the graduation of our oldest child, Shalom, from high school. The child who transformed us from a couple into a family, continues to transform me into an older parent (my wife somehow doesn’t age…).
Graduations have a way of awakening old memories that transport you back in time (maybe that’s the point of the many commencement speeches). During my trip down memory lane, I remembered that a couple of days after Shalom was born, while my wife was still in the hospital, she was given a form to fill out with the baby’s information for the birth certificate. In the space where it said mother’s name, she casually wrote her mother’s name “Sarah Mermelstein.” But on the next line where it asked for the father’s name she was confused and wondered to herself why they would need her father’s name. It took her a moment to realize that the mother’s name was not Sarah Mermelstein (her mother) but Chani Staum, and the father was not her own father but her husband, Dani Staum. That moment cemented the realization that we were the parents and prime caretakers of that newborn baby.
At any baseball game, whenever a left-handed batter comes up to bat, there is a battle cry of “lefty shift.” A right-handed batter is more likely to hit the ball towards short stop or left field. A left-handed batter on the other hand, is more apt to hit the ball towards right field. So, when a lefty steps up to the plate, all players shift right, in anticipation of where the ball is more likely to be hit.
Humans are not stagnant beings. Not only is the world and its events constantly in flux, but we ourselves evolve as well. Ideas and attitudes we were adamant and emphatic about at one point in our lives may shift in our minds and hearts as we travel the journey of life.
There is a popular song to the words “ana avda d’kusha b’rich hu – I am a servant of the Holy One, blessed is He” from the prayer B’rich Shmei, recited prior to the removal of the Sefer Torah. In that song the word ‘ana – I’ is repeated numerous times.
Our generation has been dubbed the I-generation. It’s not just based on a clever observation that we have a lot of “I” devices – iPhone, iPad, iPod. More poignantly, it’s because we are somewhat self-absorbed and narcissistic. With that in mind, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to repeat the word avda – servant, emphasizing that we are proud servants of Hashem, than to repeatedly sing the word ana, stressing the egotistical “I”?
It’s been suggested that the format of the song is profound. We often act differently depending on our social environment. We speak and conduct ourselves differently when we are in our homes than when we are in shul, at work, at a wedding, or in an amusement park. In addition, our lives are not stagnant. Not only is our social status and circle, jobs, and finances constantly in flux, but emotionally and intellectually we change, for good or for better.
Therefore, the song reminds us that ana, ana, ana – all of the different “I”s of my personality, no matter where I am and no matter at what stage of my life – all of those different personas remain always avda d’kudhsha b’rich hu – a servant of the Holy One, blessed is He. That is what defines us and composes the core of our identify. First and foremost, we are servants of Hashem, and have to conduct ourselves accordingly at all times.
One of the familiar instructions announced at the conclusion of a flight is, “please use caution when opening overhead bins, as items may have shifted during the flight.”
Our lives have constant turbulence causing our internal selves to be constantly shifting. Because our lives are so transient and in flux, being strong in our convictions and beliefs is a formidable challenge.
In this graduation season, we remind our graduates that despite the fact that they may have their lives and future planned, life does not always proceed as we anticipate. Although it’s always good to have goals and aspirations, we must be able to shift and adjust to the serpentine turns of life.
There is only one area in which we cannot be flexible – in our faith and commitment to Torah and the future of the Jewish people. Those “overhead compartments” must never be allowed to shift, despite the inevitable turbulence.