“Today my days and years are exactly filled to teach you that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, sits and fills the years of the righteous from day to day, and from month to month, as it is stated, ‘The number of your days I will fulfill’ [Exodus 23:26].”
BT Rosh Hashana 11a
‘Tis the season of graduations and that unique saturation of trite, feel-good advice known as the commencement address. Seize the day. The world is your oyster. Now is your time.
This year, we’ve spiced up the season because perfectly good commencement speakers were “fired” because of student protest or fired themselves first to avoid the fray. Condoleeza Rice was ousted as was chief of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor of Berkeley and Attorney General Eric Holder. This led Timothy Egan in The New York Times to conclude of the graduation bullies: “They’re afraid of hearing something that might spoil a view of the world they’ve already figured out.” And while we are on The New York Times, let’s not forget Jill Abramson’s graduation address this year at Wake Forest University, only days after she was let go as the paper’s executive editor. She said to the 2014 graduating class: “What’s next for me? I don’t know. So I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you.”
At least she was honest. She – along with many in her audience – are unsure of what is next. The messages of overweening confidence don’t always resonate with young people insecure about their choices or the still sober job market. Carpe Diem doesn’t always hit a cord. So for all you graduates out there, I offer the present of a passage of Talmud. It didn’t cost me anything, but it’s still priceless, and I mean well, even if the message still borders on cliche.
The Talmudic observation above is complex and related to time. The words are imaginatively put in the mouth of Moses who died at 120. The verse recording his death in Deuteronomy has Moses addressing the people, his own commencement speech, if you will. “And he said to them, ‘I am one hundred and twenty years old today’” (31:2). Quite an announcement. The Talmud parses out the phrase and wonders why Moses included the word today and decides that it is for the sake of precision. Moses lived out every one of those years to the day, leading to the conclusion that God fulfills the days, months and years of the righteous exactly: “The number of your days, I will fulfill.”
We are into only in graduation season. We are also counting the days from Passover to Shavuot. We count them by days and weeks, noting each one and blessing the Omer count as a way to remind ourselves that every day matters, that every day requires our blessing, that were each day really significant, not an hour or minute would be wasted. In that sense, it’s not so much that God gives the righteous the gift of squeezing the most out of time, but that perhaps this is what constitutes genuine righteousness: the ability to use time well, to regard it as sacred, and never to believe that an act of grace or compassion towards another human being is a waste of time. We are put on this earth to serve.
In the spirit of fulfilling the demands of each day precisely and with meaning, I leave you with the words of French novelist Marc Levy in If Only It Were True:
If you want to know the value of one year, just ask a student who failed a course.
If you want to know the value of one month, ask a mother who gave birth to a premature baby.
If you want to know the value of one hour, ask the lovers waiting to meet.
If you want to know the value of one minute, ask the person who just missed the bus.
If you want to know the value of one second, ask the person who just escaped death in a car accident.
And if you want to know the value of one hundredth of a second, ask the athlete who won a silver medal in the Olympics.
Congratulations to all of our graduates (we have three this year). May you live until 120, and may you make every minute matter.