For their graduation theme last June our CJHS seniors chose two quotes to adorn the program, which they then reflected on as they spoke of their future.
The first was written by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, z’l, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the last century. In his piece “Kol Dodi Dofek,” Soloveitchik wrote:
“Man’s task in the world, according to Judaism, is to transform fate into destiny … an existence of compulsion, perplexity, and muteness into an existence replete with a powerful will, with resourcefulness, daring, and imagination.”
Put differently, it is possible to see the world as beyond our control and to respond passively to it, or to act with strength and dignity and creativity in determining our personal and communal existence. To allow ourselves to live at the whim of the world around us is inauthentic and perhaps even immoral; it is to surrender the freedom, responsibility and opportunity that is ours.
The second was taken from Martin Luther King Jr’s. “Strength to Love”:
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Who we truly are does not emerge until we are tested. During times of comfort we give lip-service to what we’d like to be and do, and we hide the things that we do not wish to show to the world. But when we face challenges, when controversy forces us to choose a side or to take a stand – that is when the true person underneath the skin is revealed.
These two thoughts bear reflecting upon as we prepare our souls for the arduous journey through the holidays and the path they take us on through our selves.
As Soloveitchik indicates, our lives are in our hands; we can embrace the power that we possess in order to change our selves and to increase the godliness that is our potential. We are not just victims of forces larger than ourselves, be they genetic, economic, political, natural or other. We also are our responses to them, the choices that we make as we live within the matrices of those things.
The holidays themselves are a time of challenge as we stand under the scrutiny of God and of our own highest selves. That is when we find who we truly are and whether or not we are living lives worthy of having been created. And more: since there always is challenge and controversy around us – let’s mention only the persistence of racism in our country – to live only within our own comfort and convenience is to shirk our responsibility and to declare to all we meet the real measure of our lives: that we have defaulted in exercising the power and goodness of which Soloveitchik spoke.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will remind us: we are not sole individuals, no matter what the existentialists and hedonists say. We all live within a web of relationships – with family, with friends, with strangers, with God – and the true measure of our selves is how we address those relationships.