“You shall never again return that way”—Deuteronomy 17:16.
This “Negative Commandment Number 46” was Chabad’s mitzvot lesson June 11, 2021. The simple and literal explanation was: you have left Egypt; you cannot go back. However, Sacred Scriptures work because they work for all time. This is the season of graduation speeches, better repositioned as “commencement addresses,” because the graduates are beginning new journeys, and cannot return that way.
The existential question is, “How will you go forward now because of the way you just came?” On June 10, 2021, I had the honor of facilitating the Zoom 50th reunion of my undergraduate class, now known as Bernard Baruch College/CUNY. On June 8, 1971, I was the valedictorian of Baruch, and presented an address from the stage of Carnegie Hall. The pandemic forced this year’s Jubilee celebrations to be virtual.
I posed an introspective question for each reunion participant to reflect on in about two to three minutes: “What has been your journey for the past 50 years, and how did your Baruch experience help to shape that journey?” Former classmates first presented the facts of who and where they are now. Then, they instinctively pivoted to the uniqueness of the professors who changed their lives forever, many of whom are now of blessed memory, Z”L. For example, CUNY Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Dr. Mortimer Feinberg (Z”L), taught me, “The mind clears when the blood cools.”
The fancy term for the experiences that change us forever are called transformative moments. We are never the same afterward. They are also spiritual moments, when we pause and embrace them, even if it takes a while to unpeel the goodness in sad transformative moments.
Two positive transformative moments in my life came when Jewish community leaders, operating on automatic pilot and not even realizing what they had just said, both said to me, “I am — and I will help you.” This was true gemilut chasadim in action.
In shul, the morning after my father’s funeral, I was a mere 17-year-old fumbling with remembering how to don my tefillin. Joe, an usher/gabbai, put his arms around me and said these forever memorable words, “I am Joe —, and I will help you.” A different remark from a different usher could have turned me off from shul forever. The second was when I was transforming from a volunteer chaplain to a Board Certified Professional Chaplain. I was facing a second master’s degree from reputable schools, but not seminaries and on a part-time basis. There would be two to three years of internships after that. Would the Boards accept this? Was the journey I was shaping a good direction? I reached out for insights. The phone rang and the other voice said, “ I am Rabbi David Zucker, and I will help you.” Rabbi Zucker is in the Denver area, we are close electronically. David always responds to my story with, “Did I actually say that?” One of the intrinsic beauties of gemilut chasadim is that when they come from the heart, the giver does not even realize she or he has said that. It is who they are.
It is who you can be also. It is the season of commencement speeches, and a great commencement speaker can also move you on that pathway. Here are excerpts from two celebrity commencement speakers who touched on this in very powerful ways.
On June 1, 1980, Alan Alda gave the Commencement Address at Connecticut College on the occasion of his daughter, Eve, graduating from there. Mr. Alda used a simpler expression, “Doorway Moments.” Alan Alda spoke, “Deep in our hearts we know that the best things said come last. People will talk for hours saying nothing much and then linger at the door with words that come with a rush from the heart. Doorways, it seems, are where the truth is told. We are all gathered at a doorway today. It’s the end of something and the beginning of something else. And my guess is there will be a lot of lingering at the door today with the hope that one of us will say something that will somehow express what can’t be said in words … the very best things said often slip out completely unheralded and preceded by the words, ‘Oh, by the way.’”
In 2002, Presbyterian Minister Fred Rogers, affectionately known as “Mr. Rogers,” gave the commencement address at his alma mater, Dartmouth. Mr. Rogers asked the graduates to reflect on transformative moments in their lives by using the term, “the invisible gift of silence.” Rogers said, “I’d like to give you all an invisible gift. A gift of a silent minute to think about those who have helped you become who you are today. Some of them may be here right now. Some may be far away. Some, like my astronomy professor, may even be in heaven. But wherever they are, if they’ve loved you, and encouraged you, and wanted what was best in life for you, they’re right inside your self. And I feel that you deserve quiet time, on this special occasion, to devote some thought to them. So, let’s just take a minute, in honor of those that have cared about us all along the way. One silent minute.”
May you receive and may you give invisible gifts of silence, of transformative moments.
Barry Pitegoff is a Staff Chaplain at Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York. Barry enjoyed thousands of hours of volunteer chaplaincy at hospitals, hospices, and prisons while he was vice president of market research for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board. After retirement, Barry transformed into professional chaplaincy by taking a second Master’s Degree and two years’ of hospital internships. Barry was awarded the title of BCC, Board Certified Chaplain at the May 2019 conference of the NAJC (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains). In 2020, Chaplain Barry was elected to the Board of NAJC, serves on Chaplain Review Committees, and facilitates a monthly national video call of Jewish hospital chaplains.