Commencement 2011 - Baccalaureate Address
By Rabbi Emily Huebscher
I love driving down the highway and spotting all of the cars that simply must be coming from college. You know them because they are filled to the brim with stuff! There are boxes and suitcases and laundry bags. There are fans and futons and furry stuffed animals pinned against the rear window. These cars are packed full of the stuff that defined and will continue to define your college experience. These cars are packed full of books and papers, t-shirts and trinkets, pillows and photographs. All of this stuff represents your education at Denison. As you embark on the next step, you can either let this stuff collect dust in the attic, or you can take it out, unpack it—and let it influence, support, and inspire your future.
There is a story of two first-century Jewish scholars, one of whom, Hillel, is the namesake of the Denison’s Jewish Student Organization. In this story, a visitor comes to both scholars and asks to be taught the whole Torah while standing on one foot. The first of the respondents, a man named Shammai, whacks the man with a measuring rod, angry at him for asking such an irreverent question. Hillel replies, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another: This is the whole of Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn.” The first part of this response is an easy answer. Yes, much of the Torah is summarized by this golden rule. It is the second part of Hillel’s response that contains the wisdom of the answer.
The Mishnah, a text written in the second century by the early rabbis, designed to explain and interpret Jewish tradition, teaches us about taking the next steps in our education. It asks a series of questions and provides most interesting answers. “Who is rich?” it queries. “One who is content with one’s lot. Who is strong? One who conquers the evil inclination. Who is wise? One who learns from all people.” This text teaches that it is not what we have but rather how we use what we have that makes us healthy, wealthy, and wise. It is not what we have that makes us rich but an appreciation for what we have. It is not our power that makes us strong but how we use it to make decisions. It is not what we have learned that makes us wise but how we keep learning throughout our lives.
"Who is rich?” The experiences you have had at Denison have left you quite wealthy. You have been able to explore not only your major field of study, or fields in some cases, but electives in anything and everything your heart desired. You have been surrounded by students, faculty and staff from around the world. You have had the opportunity to experience religious traditions not simply as a visitor but as an explorer.
As you stored away the collection of stuff you have accumulated from your varied experiences, I imagine you looked back on the wealth you gained these four years nostalgically, remembering the richness in which you were immersed. Packing is an oddly emotionally demanding process. As you tuck away each item you are forced to remember it's context in your life. As you fold the shirt you wore to the Sizzler, you think about how far you have come from that first week of freshman year. The wealth of experiences you have been able to enjoy at Denison is truly worth packing to bring with you. Sadly, not everything fits—not in the minivan and less still in your memories. But packing is also a process of selectivity. You will, unfortunately and undoubtedly, forget some of the experiences you have had here. In this process of packing you have already chosen those experiences which left you most wealthy, committing yourself to remember them as you take the next step in your life.
You have also packed your wealth of experiences with reflection. You have considered what this wealth has taught you about yourself and the world in which we live. You have packed those experiences that probably taught you something—even if you haven’t figured out exactly what that something is yet. It has taken work to decide which experiences are most relevant to your development in your time at Denison, but it was important work, and it is worthwhile.
After packing, you are left with a suitcase full of the most meaningful, most important, and most relevant experiences of your time at Denison. Once you take this wealth with you, you can either let it collect dust in your parent’s basement or you can take it out and unpack it. “Who is wealthy,” the Mishnah asks, “one who is content with his or her lot.” The value of your wealth of experiences will be magnified if you are content with what you have chosen.
I have understood the challenge of being content with my lot as being appreciative of the experiences I had rather than frustrated with the experiences I lacked. There will be times when you wish you had taken a course in accounting rather than African drumming. I know this because I took African drumming and boy are there times when I wish I knew something about accounting. Honestly, African drumming has not yet come in handy in the years since graduation. Still, how amazing that I was able to study African drumming! There may be times when you think: “What was I thinking? There really isn't anything you can do with a classics major and minors in religion and visual arts.” Well, you can become a rabbi for one! But how amazing that I was able to study all of those topics in just four years! When you look back at your time at Denison, in six years or sixty years, learn to be content in the amazing wealth of your experiences at this small liberal arts school in the middle of Ohio.
It is not only Jewish tradition that holds this value. Lao Tzu, in the Tao Te Ching, a classical Chinese text, writes, “He who is contented is rich.” Lao Tzu seems to be saying that being content, regardless of one’s lot, is, in and of its self, rich, valuable, and a source of wealth. There may have been times throughout your experiences here where things did not work out how you would have liked. Perhaps you pulled number 237 in the lottery or found out a paper was due the night before its due date. You can look back on these events with regret, but you can also look back with contentment at their outcomes, content that you wound up with great neighbors you wouldn’t have otherwise met or content that you were able to write a brilliant paper on such short notice (and perhaps such little sleep). “One who is contented is rich,” Lao Tzu explains. One who packs away the fond memories and leaves behind the negative ones will walk away richer for the positive experience she takes with her.
There is also an element of gratitude in contentment. Thomas á Kempis, a late Medieval Catholic monk, wrote in his work On Gratitude for God’s Grace, “Be thankful for the smallest blessing and you will deserve to receive greater... If you remember the dignity of the Giver, no gift will seem small or mean, for nothing can be valueless that is given by the most high God.” When we think about the wealth of experiences of an education at Denison University, there is much for which to be grateful. We are grateful to professors who have dedicated their time to our education, grateful to staff who have worked hard to make sure we are safe and happy, grateful to administrators guiding our paths in ways known and unknown. We have the opportunity to be grateful for every moment of the time we have spent on the hill, and that gratitude will magnify and develop into a greater appreciation for of the wealth we have acquired.
Who is rich? One who is content with one’s lot. Who is rich? One who appreciates what he has, looks back on the good more often than the bad, and appreciates what he has received. The wealth you have gained will be even more valuable if you continue to learn from your experiences, if you continue to let them inspire you, and if you continue to understand them in new ways. Now go and learn.
Who is strong? Whether you entered college feeling independent or not, confident or not, secure or not, I know that you have become emotionally and spiritually stronger in your time on the hill. Here you have defended your beliefs and let yourself be challenged. Here you have built significant relationships based on trust, respect, and love, and you have been hurt by those with whom you were in relationship. Here you have faced adversity and uncertainty, and here you have risen to meet challenges and overcome obstacles. You are stronger for your time at Denison.
You have packed this strength with nostalgia, looking back with pride at the victories big and small. You’ve packed with selectivity. While you may not have known that you had the self- confidence and the fortitude to run across campus clad in only paint, you have, hopefully, left your streaking days here on the hill, just quietly packing the pride of participation. You have also packed your strength with reflection, taking the relationships that taught you how to be a better friend, the classes that taught you how to make better mistakes, and the papers that taught you how to formulate a better argument—especially if you were wrong.
After packing, you are left with a laundry-bag full of the emotional and spiritual strength you gained in your time at Denison. Once you take this strength with you, you can either let it collect mold in your apartment’s crawl space or you can take it out and unpack it. “Who is strong? One who conquers the evil inclination.” Who is strong? One who uses his strength to influence his decisions.
Judaism teaches that the evil inclination exists in every human. With each choice we make, we have the chance to follow our good inclination—our desire to do good in the world—or our evil inclination—our desire to do evil. Strength, the Mishnah teaches, comes from choosing good over evil. While you have hopefully developed this type of strength during your time at Denison, I am certain that you will be faced with the challenge of honing it throughout your life. Unpacking that self-assurance that will help guide you in your decisions: with the knowledge that you are important but not self-important; worthy but not entitled; confident but not over confident.
A similar sentiment is taught in the Koran, the holy book of Islam. We read in its pages, “Whoever exercises patience and practices forgiveness—that is the staying power which masters al things.” We all know that strength comes from exercise, in the physical sense at least. The more reps you do, the stronger your muscles become...or so I hear. The Koran, here, refers to spiritual strength. This too takes practice, repetition, and work. Conquering one’s evil inclination, choosing the good over the bad, allows us to develop a powerful mastery over oneself, but unfortunately a mastery which does not develop right away. We always need to keep working and building those spiritual muscles. We need to unpack the barbells of decision making we have acquired in our spiritual development here because we will need to keep lifting them throughout our lives.
But what of the strength associated with physical prowess? Certainly you have built that strength, too. Your legs are probably stronger for your many hikes from Done Music to Talbot Hall. Your arms are probably stronger for the hours of typing research papers. Mahatma Ghandi, spiritual practitioner and leader of India, once said “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” Even the physical attributes we pack with us on our departure from Denison come from emotional and spiritual strength. This is the strength it takes to wake up in the morning to run the hills, the strength it takes to keep going when you are tired, and the strength it takes to take one more step or edit one more draft. Unpack the indomitable will you have built for yourself in your time here for it will bring you future strengths.
Who is strong? One who conquers the evil inclination, again and again, by building and strengthening one’s decision making skills and, again and again, having the willpower to do what is right. The strength you have gained will lead to more strength when use it to learn to make better decisions, to challenge those decisions, and to support those decisions. Now go and learn.
Our third and final question: Who is wise? How much wisdom you have gained since you first came up the hill. You have learned in the classroom, in the dorm room, in the library, and in the dining hall. You have learned about art, science, literature, and religion. You have learned about yourself, your neighbors, your country, and your world.
You’ve packed nostalgically, remembering historic events and formulas along side those funny jokes only your favorite professors could make. You’ve selected wisdom carefully, too, selling back some— but not all—of your books. You have undoubtedly reflected quite a bit as you packed the wisdom you have accumulated. You have considered how your perspective has changed, how your passion has deepened, and how you have grown.
After packing, you will have boxes and boxes of wisdom. Once you take this wisdom with you, you can either pile it in your friend’s garage or you can take it out and unpack it. The Mishnah text teaches us, “Who is wise? One who learns from all people?” When unpacking the varied wisdom you have accumulated throughout your time at Denison, you can use its breadth to help you learn from everyone you encounter.
In the Christian Testament, the same question is attributed to James, who asks, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” The wisdom you have attained is most valuable, most effective, when you demonstrate it in the actions you take throughout your life. We can demonstrate wisdom in the choices we make on our career paths and in our personal relationships. But the most precious wisdom, James explains, is that of acting with humility.
The following is attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “I do not think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.” Graduation is not a cessation from learning but rather a gateway to further learning. The education you have received here is a solid foundation for all you will learn—and it is only the beginning. You will, throughout your life, have countless opportunities to add to this wisdom as you learn from every person you encounter. Who is wise? One who learns from all people, every day, and uses that wisdom to act humbly in the world. Now go and learn.
“Who is rich, one who is content with one's lot. Who is strong, one who conquers the evil inclination. Who is wise, one who learns from all people.” As you leave this place, you pack with you the wealth of experiences, the strength of self-discovery, and the wisdom of an excellent education. It is your job to keep learning as you unpack the wealth of gratitude and contentment, the strength of good decision making, and the wisdom of learning from everyone you encounter.
The funny thing about all of those cars on the highway is that, even though they are stuffed to the brim, it is not all the stuff that I think about when I see them. In those cars, I see potential. They carry the precious cargo of fresh minds, new perspectives, and bright ideas. You may not be able to see your little brother in the backseat behind the cardboard chair you made in Intro to Architecture, but you can see the innovative building that budding architect might build. You may not be able to sit comfortably without a box jabbing into your rib, but you know that each box contains worlds of ideas yet to be. And when you see that diploma peeking out the window, you know that, in that crowded car, there is a person ready to keep learning.