We take our leave now, as summer unfolds, of graduation ceremonies — and the delivery, to excess, of commencement addresses.
Having had the privilege of serving as a teacher and an administrator of a Jewish high school, I probably imposed on captive audiences more than my share of shared wisdom. Now, with graduates of my own and on the receiving end of graduation speeches, I find myself with a fresh appreciation for oratorical minimalism.
Nevertheless, an occasional graduation speech — sometimes, even one delivered by an actual graduate — is memorable. That was the case at my daughter’s recent high school graduation.
The custom at her school is to not designate a valedictorian or salutatorian. Instead, the class members themselves, by closed vote, suggest several young women (it’s an Orthodox Jewish girls school) to briefly share their thoughts with those gathered for the graduation ceremony.
One of the seniors chosen to speak this year began with what seasoned graduation-goers immediately recognized, and dreaded, as a numbing cliché: a reference to Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.”
Oy, we collectively moaned. Another declaration of personal independence, another sweet paean to individualism. Although a careful reading of the poem reveals the possibility of ironic intent in Frost’s words, the poem has widely come to be taken as a satisfied endorsement of individuality, a declaration of the existential value of the less-traveled road.
There’s nothing wrong with individuality, to be sure. All the same, the poem and its purported point are rather heavily traveled themselves, staples of countless literature classes, poetry recitals — and graduations. So I sank in my seat with resignation, thinking that it would end soon enough.
It turned out that where this particular young Jewish woman went with Frost’s famous words was not to be missed. I don’t have her words before me, but I well recall their essence.
The poem’s narrator, she explained, seems to take pride in having chosen from the “two roads diverged in a yellow wood” the one “less traveled by” — a choice that, looked back upon “somewhere ages and ages hence,” would turn out to have “made all the difference.”
This speaker, though, begged to take issue with the idea that the less-traveled path is always the more valiant choice. The life-path, for example, that she and her classmates had come to value most was a road pointedly well-worn, trodden by countless Jewish generations before our own arrival.
We hold our heads high, she declared, as we endeavor to walk in our ancestors’ footsteps, filled with pride at the chance to follow such inspiring predecessors, and to wear, as did they, the hallowed mantle of Torah and mitzvot. Judaism, she explained, is not about blazing new paths, but about cherishing and preserving time-honored ones.
It was, ironically, a rebellious message in its own way. It boldly shunned the conformity proffered at every turn by an open, freedom-loving society that trumpets self-celebration, self-fulfillment, self-respect, self.
What this 17-year-old said was that our undeniable value as individuals must be tempered by, even made subservient to, our value as links over history in a chain of life and family and peoplehood, as members of an eternal community of belief and commitment.
It is a message, truly, for our times. In an age of emotional alienation, marital discord, rampant consumerism and instant gratification, nothing could be healthier than to digest the fact that we have not only desires but responsibilities, that we were given our lives in order to fulfill something more than ourselves.
Those who come to recognize that fact, and its upshot, will likely one day, ages hence, look back and realize that it really made all the difference.
Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.