Segal: Remember the shoulders you stood on
Editor’s note: The following speech was delivered by Rabbi David Segal as part of the Aspen High School baccalaureate service Monday at Aspen Chapel.
Congratulations to the Aspen High School Class of 2013 and to your parents, faculty and friends. I’m honored to address you tonight.
Once upon a time, a father went to pick up his daughter from school and happened to overhear her talking to a friend.
She said, “I’m really worried. Both my parents work full-time jobs to give me a really nice home, good food and everything I could ever need. Then when they get home, they spend even more time cleaning the house, cooking and taking care of me. I’m worried sick!”
Her friend said, “What have you got to worry about? It sounds like you’ve got it made, with parents like that!”
The daughter shook her head and said, “Sure, but what if they try to escape?”
I’m guessing there are a lot of mixed emotions in this room — for you, the graduates, and for those who love you. Some of you probably can’t wait to get out on your own, craving your first taste of real independence. Some of you might be anxious about leaving the comfort of the known for the question mark that lies ahead. Most of you feel both, the push and pull of every life passage. Dr. Jonas Salk once said that good parents give their children roots and wings. Spreading your wings and testing their flight changes forever your link to your roots.
In the Jewish tradition, we’ve just celebrated the holiday of Shavuot. It marks the giving of the Ten Commandments by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. This revelation of rules was the culmination of the Israelites’ redemption from Egyptian slavery, capping their hard-won independence with the responsibility that freedom demands. It was, in a sense, the Israelites’ graduation day. Naturally, many synagogues have come to connect Shavuot to high school graduation, with its parallel theme of negotiating independence and responsibility, which you will all experience when you leave home.
Now, I’m not suggesting that high school is like Egyptian oppression or that your teachers are like taskmasters or that it took an act of God to get you to graduation … although some of you might feel that way. But there is a mysterious episode in the Bible’s account of that miraculous day on a mountain that speaks to the mixed emotions you may be feeling at this threshold moment in your lives.
Toward the end of the Book of Exodus, Moses stands ready to climb the mountain — again — with a second set of tablets, on which God will write the 10 Commandments. (Moses broke the first set, you may recall, when he came down the mountain to find the Israelites partying a little too hard around a golden keg … er … calf … like a frat party gone horribly, sacrilegiously, wrong.) Moses worries about how he’s going to lead the people to the Promised Land, so he asks God for help: Lead us, show us favor, lighten my burden.
And then, Moses asks one thing more: “Please, show me your presence!” (Exodus 33:18). God agrees, sort of, for no human can see God and live. So God suggests an alternative: He’ll shield Moses with his hand in the cleft of a rock while he passes by, and then Moses can look at his back. It’s what God says during this “drive-by viewing” that speaks to us tonight:
“A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, with great mercy and faithfulness, extending mercy to the thousandth generation, forgiving sin … yet not dismissing all punishment, but visiting the sin of the parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7)
Here’s a quandary for a college theology class: How can God show mercy to a thousand generations but also punish children for their parents’ and grandparents’ mistakes? How to resolve this contradiction?
Well, one answer, which comes from the Bible itself, is simple: Change it! That’s what the prophet Ezekiel does, centuries later:
The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by quoting this proverb: “Parents eat sour grapes, and their children’s teeth are blunted”? As I live — declares the Lord God — this proverb shall no longer be current among you … A child shall not share the burden of a parent’s guilt, nor shall a parent share the burden of a child’s guilt; the righteousness of the righteous shall be accounted to him alone, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be accounted to him alone. (Ezekiel 18:1-3, 20)
In other words, “I changed my mind.” In Exodus, God said that children will suffer the consequences of their parents’ actions. According to Ezekiel, all will be judged only according to their own choices.
Years ago, I was teaching these texts to a group of young adults, asking them how to resolve the tension between Exodus and Ezekiel on parents and children. One student said it best: That tension, that paradox, is just the way the world is. Although we uphold a belief in our responsibility for our own actions, it’s simply true that we bear the consequences of our parents’ and grandparents’ choices, for better and for worse.
I suspect that you have all internalized a certain narrative, that through your hard work and perseverance you made it to this day. And now you’re about to step into real independence for the first time, where the world will challenge you to continue to achieve and succeed through your own efforts. In this story, self-sufficiency is the endgame. It would make Ezekiel proud: you, out in the world, forging your own path, accountable only for yourself.
But what God told Moses, about the chain of responsibility from generation to generation, also holds true. I experience this truth daily as the father of a toddler. His mother and I make choices for him continuously, as all parents do — what he eats, where he goes to day care and how often, what books he reads, how he gets disciplined. These choices, completely out of his control and unrelated to his merit, nonetheless will have a profound impact on how his life unfolds. And the world of choices available to me has been influenced and limited by my parents’ choices and their parents’ choices — to immigrate to this country before World War II, to settle in a particular city, to educate me at good schools, to support my decision to attend seminary.
There are forces in our society today, undergirded by political interests, who insist that either the Exodus or Ezekiel version of events is exclusively true. One of these voices says that you are a radically social being, having inherited all you have from those who came before and owing all you achieve to those around you and those who come after you. You are dependent, you are vulnerable, and you accomplish nothing on your own.
The other says that you are an atomized individual, an island of responsibility unto yourself, with the potential to be whatever you want to be, limited only by your imagination and drive. You are independent, you are on your own, and godspeed.
The former, taken to its extreme, leads to guilt and self-doubt. It numbs the will to achieve and causes emotional paralysis and the neglect of our basic responsibilities.
The latter view leads to arrogance and smug complacency. Symptoms may also include greed and materialism. As Stephen Colbert, a satirical mouthpiece for this view, puts it, “I got mine, Jack!”
I want to take a moment now to exercise my prerogative as your baccalaureate speaker and offer my requisite piece of unsolicited advice: When you hear these two extreme voices, tune them out. They are toxic.
We are neither islands nor cogs in a wheel. We are interdependent. A balanced and fulfilling life learns from the tension between the Exodus and Ezekiel stories and walks a middle path. This path leads not to arrogance or guilt but instead to the essential virtues of reverence, humility and gratitude. It leads to a sense of responsibility, both for the universe of choices we’ve inherited and for the effects of our choices on others.
Today, graduates, you deserve to feel proud. You worked hard, and your efforts have paid off, but there’s no excuse for puffed-up self-importance. My prayer for all of you, at this milestone and every day, is that you will carry yourselves as if you stand on the shoulders of giants. Because of those who laid the foundation, invested in you, believed in you — you can see farther, dream bigger, achieve more. While you’re enjoying the view from the heights you’ve achieved, don’t forget to give thanks for the shoulders you stand on. And then one day, God willing, someone will stand on yours.
Thank you, and congratulations again.
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