My twin boys Akiva and Hillel graduated in June. Graduation is a rite of passage, a moment for these 6th graders take stock of their educational achievements. But it’s also a rite of passage for parents. We marvel at how the toddlers we just dropped off at kindergarten are already at the cusp of maturity.
So please indulge me as I write out of naches!!
Rites of passage are important. In Judaism, a child who turns Bat and Bar Mitzvah is considered personally responsible for his or her actions. (The public celebration of Bar Mitzvahs is a medieval German innovation; the garish celebration of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs is a 20th century North American mutation.) By necessity a birthday is the dividing line, arbitrarily declaring that the child is now a responsible adult.
Like Bar-Bat Mitzvahs, graduations are arbitrary dividing lines. But far more important than ceremonial graduation days are the unexpected moments that test the character of a young adult. These true graduation days always arrive unexpectedly.
David, a young shepherd, visits his older brothers at their army camp. There, he sees Goliath, a Philistine warrior, mocking the army of Israel, challenging any soldier to fight him one on one. As the soldiers cower, David the shepherd offers to fight Goliath himself.
David is ridiculed by his brothers, and even King Saul refuses David at first, saying:
"You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a boy, and he has been a fighting man from his youth."
But David, (already anointed to be a future King), insists on fighting. David’s battle against Goliath marks his true graduation day.
A true graduation day is the day when a young person rises to the occasion. Being anointed with academic degrees means nothing until one has passed real life tests.
Tony Benetatos graduated in just a few hours. A “probie”, (a new firefighter), the 21-year-old Benetatos was assigned to Manhattan's Duane Street firehouse, located seven blocks from the World Trade Center. French Filmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet were filming Benetatos for a documentary, hoping to see how the “boy turns into a man in nine months”. They follow Benetatos in his first days on the job, as senior firefighters haze him and break him in.
Then 9-11 occurs. Every man in the fire station is pressed into service. Firefighters fight on the front line, risking their lives to save the lives of others. Along with his fellow firefighters, Benetatos shows remarkable courage and compassion. On 9-11, Benetatos becomes a hero.
Benetatos passes his true graduation day with honors. As Jules Naudet puts it at the end of the documentary (aptly entitled 9-11) , “we wanted to watch a boy become a man over 9 months; turns out, the boy became a man in 9 hours.”
Every child, on the road to becoming an adult, has to pass a true graduation day. On that day there won’t be any caps and gowns, there won’t be celebratory parties, but on that day, like King David and Tony Benetatos, the boy will become a man.
I am proud to watch my children graduate, and I am proud of what they have achieved. And my blessing, to Akiva, Hillel, and all of the graduates, is that when their true graduation day arrives, they will pass with flying colors.
"rite of passage"