We're now at the point in the Commencement ceremony that recalls the moment in the synagogue service following the recitation of Aleinu and the mourners' kaddish. A few words from the president, a fast Adon Olam, and we are done. Time to eat. I am that president today, and I do not want to detain the congregation any longer than necessary—just long enough for me to offer a parting charge and blessing to the Class of 2014.
My text (of course there will be a text; this is The Jewish Theological Seminary) is familiar to many of you—so familiar in fact, and so beloved, that we often sing it to a catchy and lighthearted tune. Pirkei Avot, chapter 2, mishnah 21: lo ale'kha hamelakha ligmor, ve-lo ata ben-horin le-hi-ba tel mime'na (You are not obliged to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it).
This was, we are told, a favorite teaching of the 2nd-century sage, Rabbi Tarfon. It certainly seems appropriate to graduates who today are celebrating the fact of actually completing something, even while painfully aware of all you had hoped to accomplish in the course of your studies at JTS and did not. I personally appreciate Rabbi Tarfon's wisdom all the more because he lets us know immediately that the matter of not completing but not desisting is more complicated than he at first let on. "If you have studied much Torah, your reward will be abundant. The master of your work will reward you for your labor—but know that the righteous receive their reward le-atid la-vo."
You might want to translate the last phrase as "at a future time." Alternatively, it might mean "in the next world." Either way, Rabbi Tarfon's opening aphorism-part urge to action, part consolation for not acting-has turned into a warning to students and "doers" of Torah like you and me. The warning goes something like this: The reward for your labors is going to be great. True, you probably didn't learn or do as much as you could have; that's okay. You're not expected to finish the task, only to get a serious start on it. You will surely receive compensation for this effort. Know—despite evidence to the contrary—that that is the case. But, don't expect the greater part of your reward to come any time soon.
This seems honest, wise, but also disturbing. Let's think about it for a couple of minutes.
One thing that occurred to me, as I prepared to address students fresh from taking their last exam with this passage from Pirkei Avot, was Freud's prediction in The Interpretation of Dreams that you will probably soon start dreaming, if you haven't already, about examinations that you have not passed. (My version of this dream, which I confess recurs fairly regularly, is that the public library is dunning me decades later for books I failed to return when they were due, demanding the payment of huge fines that have accrued in the meantime.) "The relentless causal chains of real life take charge of our further education," said Freud, our greatest prophet of the incomplete, who analyzed the difference between what is terminable in this world and what is interminable better than anyone. "And now," he continued, "we dream of . . . Finals . . . whenever, having done something wrong or failed to do something properly, we expect to be punished by the event—whenever, in short, we feel the burden of responsibility."
A Jew of Torah, of course, is meant to feel that burden all the time. Rabbi Tarfon and I are here to offer you reassurance, lest your fear of not finishing the work that you are commencing today upon graduation from JTS prevents you from undertaking it. The Torah knows that we are all imperfect, fallible, and creatively forgetful. It builds that knowledge into its expectations for our learning and for the uses to which we put our learning; in other words, into our study of Torah and our practice of Torah.
But there is another recognition driving Rabbi Tarfon, I think: you cannot finish the work of learning and doing Torah—none of us can—because we do not know today the questions that Torah will be called upon to answer, through us, tomorrow. As hard as the work is—and it is hard (make no mistake about it), as you learned these past few years—it is hard to get a sentence right, nail down a fact, formulate a policy, or direct an institution. As hard as the work is, it is never completed, because you and I are not the last links in the chain. History, thank God, is open ended. The messiah is not in sight just yet. The reward of the righteous has got to come in the future, because that is where the result of your labors and mine first begins to become clear: when a child or student—or you yourself—takes your learning and practice in directions that you could never have imagined on the day you wrote that paper, had that great idea, aced that exam, or first dreamed about failing it.
Class of 2014: I wish you length of days and happy recollection, waking and sleeping, of what you have learned at JTS. I hope the lifelong friends you made here will faithfully remind you of all you have and have not accomplished. I wish for you the dissatisfaction of knowing there is a lot of good work left to do in the world, and the clarity to understand how you can make use of what you've learned—from books or from life—to do this good work and make things better.
Rabbi Tarfon is right, you know: for all that the study of Torah has its immediate rewards, which I hope you've tasted at JTS, the true reward for learning and practice of Torah will come in a future time. Da: please know, really know, know in the way you love people and trust in life, that that reward will come. The world will be better for your learning, and so will you. We at JTS are proud to have played a part in it. Godspeed.