A couple of years ago, The Wall Street Journal published an article by a father in New Haven, Connecticut. During the pandemic, his eight-year-old daughter’s public school closed and reverted to Zoom. Her parents worried how virtual school would weigh on their social and boisterous daughter. But the local Jewish day school three miles up the road was able to stay partially open. So, the worried parents enrolled the eight-year-old there.
And then, as her father later recounted, “something extraordinary happened.”
His daughter responded to the day school’s distinct and clear sense of purpose. Her father wrote, “What she loves about her Jewish school, it seems, is its sense of mission. She loves the Hebrew language instruction, the regular prayers, the Torah reading. She is connecting with all her subjects better, in part, because they have an explicit point—to become a ‘responsible, caring citizen’ and a ‘committed, knowledgeable Jew.”
The inherent purpose of a Jewish day school education —to help students “become stewards of a millennia-old tradition”—animated and transformed an eight-year-old.
Her experience was no outlier. Research supports it.
The University of Texas psychologist David S. Yaeger has identified the value of what he calls “self-transcendent purpose.” His study of over 2,000 adolescents and young adults showed that giving students a “prosocial, self-transcendent purpose” led to achievement gains in science and math, as well as helped them “sustain self-regulation over the course of increasingly boring tasks.”
A recent book by Ilana Horowitz, God, Grades and Graduation, studied teenagers from all different socioeconomic backgrounds and also found that a transcendent purpose helped motivate them to pursue a college education for its own sake, more so than for grades or for money alone.
Transcendent purpose is foundational to a JDS education.
At JDS, our vision is to foster students who are “confident and compassionate thinkers who engage the world through Jewish values.” Graduates, that includes all of you in this room. Class of 2023, you possess a purpose larger than yourself, your families, and your school.
Like all of us, you have a higher calling to relieve suffering in the world. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel tells us, “that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Being Jewish gives meaning to your life and directs you to find that purpose, that meaning.
A higher purpose has informed all your time at JDS, yet today marks a change. From when you were born until today, much of your life has been determined by the choices your parents made. From today forward, your choices will determine how you spend most of your life.
You are already writers, scientists, entrepreneurs, graphic designers, athletes, journalists, artists, mathematicians, and non-profit founders. Whatever path you choose to pursue—and you have unlimited opportunities—you will take from JDS an overarching purpose that will guide your choices and decisions, and give your life meaning. That’s why I think your parents, Caryn and I included, made the commitment to send you to our school in the first place, and I know it is why I chose to be a Jewish educator.
You will each find your own self-transcendent purpose differently. But you will each be guided by your shared Jewish tradition. Your search might start with our JDS core value – “Tikkun Olam,” to repair the world. In the siddur, the Aleinu prayer became part of our daily liturgy, recited at the end of every service, from around 1200 CE on.
In the second section of the prayer, we find the phrase “l’taken olam b’malchut shaddai” indicating the goal of Jewish existence is “to fix or perfect the world under the rule of God.” Our modern interpretation of tikkun olam professes that we “repair the world” by working toward the manifestation of “Godly” qualities like compassion, empathy, caring, and justice throughout the world.
Whatever our theology, those Hebrew words, tikkun olam, recited in the Aleinu by our ancestors and now by us for close to a thousand years, hold implications regarding the Jewish understanding of our purpose in the world. So, let’s spend a few moments exploring their meaning.
“Tikkun olam” is a post-biblical term. It does not appear in the Torah. Its first usage is in the Mishnah (c. 200 CE) where it refers to social policy legislation providing extra protection to those facing disadvantages. Tikkun olam was applied, according to the rabbis, to ensure that those who were most vulnerable would be able to live full lives rather than be restrained by a system that favors the more powerful.
The sixteenth-century Kabbalistic teacher, Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as HaARI, elaborated on a cosmic myth which obligates us to assume a partnership with God to repair the world. The Jewish folklorist Howard Schwartz summarizes the myth, which starts when God brought the world into being:
“Let there be light,” God said (Gen. 1:3) and ten holy vessels came forth, each filled with primordial light.
God sent forth the ten vessels like a fleet of ships, each carrying its cargo of light. But the vessels—too fragile to contain such powerful Divine light—broke open, scattering the holy sparks everywhere.
Had these vessels arrived intact, the world would have been perfect. Instead, God created people to seek out and gather the hidden sparks, wherever we can find them. Once this task is completed, the broken vessels will be restored and the world will be repaired.
Our task, HaARI proposes is to find and gather these mysterious and elusive sparks of light. When we strive to repair the world, we separate what is holy from what is profane and release light into the world. The Kabbalistic myth inspires our creativity and imagination as we strive to fix what is broken.
Each of you must find for yourself how you will “repair the world,” how you will interpret the purpose Judaism bestows on you. Whether as a scientist, engineer, journalist, scholar, designer or doctor – you will each ask yourselves: How do I find my transcendent purpose? How do I fulfill the mission of Judaism? This, I believe, is the path to leading a fulfilling and successful life.
I have watched you all grow up and become extraordinary young adults – some of you, more closely than others. So, forgive me if I am emotional. I watched you walk into kindergarten for the first time, learn to play sports, make and navigate friendships, overcome disappointments and challenges, begin to make your imprint on the world, and most importantly become true mensches. I know how well-equipped you are to make a difference in the world.
The pandemic has transformed how you perceive and live your lives. It forged your friendships and relationships, created new ones – and taught you their value. That’s why you chose “Friendship” as your Siyyum theme. As a group:
You protect and include each other. You don’t dwell on disappointment. You are motivated but not competitive. You are driven but have perspective. You are well-rounded, you love your families, you have strong characters – and many leaders in your midst. Five of you will serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. You are pioneers who achieved many firsts at JDS:
- You were the first third grade class to eat lunch in the cafeteria.
- The first sixth grade class to be middle schoolers.
- The first class to participate in the eighth-grade capstone Civil Rights journey to Atlanta and Montgomery.
You are loud but not rowdy, love fun but aren’t reckless.
For your senior class prank, you created Club 23 at school – one big inclusive party. On your last day of school, you sang and danced your hearts out – to celebrate your class, your school, all you have learned and the gift of life … just like you did at the B’nei Mitvah you celebrated as a class community when you were in middle school. You have carried that spirit through high school, and when you didn’t win Zimriyah last year, you got together and sang your song again to overcome your disappointment.
I could go on all day. My point is: you are prepared to learn, to think compassionately, to engage the world through Jewish values, to find your purpose and connect to your Judaism to make a difference in the world.
My charge to you as you leave high school is this: seek your transcendent purpose. The joys of life will reward your earnestness. Your parents sent you to JDS so you would learn the Jewish story, texts, traditions and values – and now you can use that heritage to find your own way in the world.
On a final note, I will lean on Rabbi Heschel again. “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement,” he says, “Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
Class of 2023, you amaze me. You have all the tools to find your purpose and live your lives in radical amazement. I have loved having a front row seat on your journey and I can’t wait to see all that you do in the future.
Mazal tov to you and your families!