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CESJDS Links: 5th Grade Siyyum Address

Rabbi Matthew Bellas

Last Thursday night, the Greater Washington, DC community experienced a momentous event. After 43 years as a franchise in the National Hockey League, the Washington Capitals went into Las Vegas, were able to win their 16th playoff game of the year, and earned the right to raise the Stanley Cup and call themselves champions. As a native born and bred Canadian from Vancouver, watching the final minutes of the game, I was fully aware of what that victorious moment meant for the team, the fans, and this community. My hometown Vancouver Canucks were founded four years before the Caps in 1970, have reached the Cup Finals three times - all in my lifetime while twice playing a game 7 - but have yet to hoist Lord Stanley's cup. Just like Caps fans until Thursday night, Vancouver and its dedicated fans have been starved for a championship for forty SEVEN years and it looks like we still have quite a long wait ahead of us...

So, besides giving the Caps fans with us today an opportunity to relive the joy of the championship and mix it with the happiness that comes along with this Siyyum milestone, why bring it up? What is the connection? The answer lies in the Caps' long journey to victory.

Each spring, one team emerges from the gauntlet of the NHL playoffs having endured four rounds of rugged play, difficult opponents, and even injuries or suspensions, as champions. This is the reason why it is widely held that the Stanley Cup is the most difficult trophy to win in all of sports. And in the Caps' case, weighing on the minds of the many veterans on the team were all the years of unfulfilled potential, disappointment, and - perhaps - self-doubt. This is why, for me, the lasting images of the 2018 playoffs are not of players lifting the trophy overhead or of the team photo with the Cup at center ice, but rather of 13-year veteran Alexander Ovechkin breathing that massive sigh of relief after winning round 2 and of his uncontrollable emotion behind the Caps' net and while skating around the ice to his teammates after the final horn last Thursday night. It was all so clear to anyone who was watching in those moments...Ovechkin and his team had finally prevailed, fought through the too early playoff exits, overcome the emotional and physical obstacles that had always held them back, answered all the critics, and demonstrated the resilience that was necessary finally to finish a season having won its final game.

That was the journey. And while we often question the example that professional athletes are setting for fans and greater society with their behavior and choices they make, we have a lesson from this year's NHL experience that we can positively incorporate into our everyday lives: the importance and power of and need for resilience. Whether you look at the players or the fans, whose emotions on Thursday night were as much relief as they were elation, there is a grit and sticktoitiveness true of all of them from which we all really must learn.

In your generation, members of the Class of 2025, instant gratification - or getting what you want exactly when you want it - and easy immediate access to information and satisfaction have caused so many to lose the grit and drive that are necessary to face and overcome difficult challenges. We have been conditioned to believe that if it doesn't come easy or fast or bring us almost immediate pleasure, then something is wrong and we would be best served to move on to the next thing...Unfortunately, this conditioning is completely opposite of the character that ultimately lead to meaningful and sustained success in the world and it is our job as your teachers and your school to build an educational experience for you that will prepare you with skills and knowledge for the long-term, not the life of the moment to moment.

What is always amazing to me is that I frequently come across educational ideas or recommendations that are called "new and cutting edge" when, in fact, I am often able to ground them in our 2,400 year old Torah tradition. The present focus on the development of resilience, grit, and determination in children and adults is not new. It is actually built into our Jewish identities going back as far as our most ancient ancestors.

Let's go all the way back to the first families of Judaism and think about Jacob. Yaakov was the name that he was given by his parents; however, later in life he acquired a new name after going through a difficult spiritual and physical night of wrestling with, according to tradition, an angel. As you remember from the story, as dawn was breaking on the day Yaakov was about to reunite with his brother Eisav after 20 years apart and the stranger with whom he was struggling insisted upon being released, Yaakov demanded a blessing. The angel renamed him Yisrael, with the explanation - KI SARITA IM ELOHIM V'IM ANASHIM VATUKHAL/you have struggled with divine and human beings and prevailed. So, as you see, our being known as b'nei Yisrael does not simply mean that we are the children of the forefather named Israel or a people that calls the land of Israel home. We are, in fact, a people defined and distinguished by engaging in struggle and emerging enriched on the other side. We value the work that it takes to push through challenges because we know that after engaging with and most often overcoming them, we will be so much more the better for having experienced them. We have proven, one generation after another throughout our history that no matter what obstacle stands in our way or what influence seeks to diminish or destroy us, we are the people of the struggle who will endure and continue on.

Class of 2025, it is this legacy of being b'nei Yisrael that you have inherited and the name which we work everyday to help you to embody. That is why, with respect, love, and empathy we work you hard. That is why with high expectations, encouragement, and coaching, we PUSH you hard. We want you to be prepared for a world in which achieving your goals and finding your happiness might take more time than you would prefer, but you will have the resilience to keep pushing toward them. We want you to be prepared for a world where we are blessed to have the freedom to be Jewish, but where we face questions about it inspired either by our own spiritual seeking or others who don't understand or feel threatened by it. We want you to be prepared for a world that is imperfect, in need of tikkun olam - real repair, in which you will be able to make a real difference as long as you maintain your commitment to middot/Jewish values and the determination and patience that will be required to make your impact.

Knowing you as I do...I have a deep hope. You have been an active and hardworking class that embodies the best of us every single day in so many different ways. All of us at school - and speaking as one of your parents as well - wish you a heart-felt kol hakavod on having come to this important moment in your young lives and pray that you will continue on the path toward earning the title that you deserve. For the Washington Capitals, it was Stanley Cup Champions. For you, if you are gritty and resilient, it will be Yis-ra-el.

Mazal tov to the students of the Class of 2025 and b'hatzlahah in Middle School!

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