Professor Michael Dobkowski
May 21, 2022
Shabbat Shalom, Good Shabbos, Good Sabbath, peace and feelings of well-being to all. Congratulations to the graduates, your parents, grandparents, friends and relatives who are so proud and happy to see you reach this milestone. As we say in Yiddish, they are shepping a lot of nachas, gratification, today.
Your college years have been characterized by many difficulties and challenges. You have lived through four years of political polarization, now the war in Ukraine, the developing climate crisis, very divisive political disputes over the issue of race and racism, identity, the rise in anti-Semitic acts, mass shootings in Buffalo and other cities, (“Freedom isn’t owning an assault rifle, It’s going to the store and not having to worry about being killed by one”), conflict over abortion and for the last four years a pandemic. Society has isolated and quarantined you, masked and social distanced you, poked you in the arm multiple times, put plexiglass between you and others, and for periods of time, thankfully less here than in other colleges and universities, tried to teach you through computer screens and remote learning. These restrictions, probably necessary during the peak of the pandemic, are not natural and do not support our well-being. We are species beings who thrive in community and in social interactions. How are you doing? Are you okay? There are some who say college students are not okay. I don’t agree. You may be feeling unsettled and distressed or are critical of the generations who came before you, as I am critical of my generation, and that is perfectly appropriate.
It is against this backdrop that I think of the distinction drawn by the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, between optimism and hope. Optimism is the expectation that things will get better. Hope is a positive vision for the world we want to create and a determination to create it. So, I am not optimistic but I am genuinely hopeful because of you, because of the wonderful, creative, empathic students you are, many I have had the privilege to teach. You know, I teach some dark subjects, genocide, the Holocaust, religion and violence – students often ask me – okay my children and grandchildren ask me – Abba – Zaidy – how do you keep teaching these subjects, why do you? It is because of you, the hope that you inspire – we call our study mission to Germany and Poland, The March: Bearing Witness to Hope. I have you in mind when I say that I am hopeful. If I can humbly recall probably the most famous words of the young Anne Frank penned in her diary: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever- approaching thunder, which will destroy us too. I can feel the suffering of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.” Her words are still so haunting and urgent and you are well-equipped to actualize that hope in the world. I believe in you. I believe you have the ability to do great things that will change the world for the better. In fact, you have already done those things by the way you have responded to the challenges that have come your way with resilience, flexibility and compassion. You are living and doing what the Talmud predicted 1500 years ago: “Youth will put the elderly to shame, and the old will rise in the presence of the young.” We each affect the world in ways we can never know. A serious education, the one you have been privileged to receive at the Colleges, ought to enable you to do more than get a decent job – and I hope you find that job or profession. Such an education should free you, allowing you to move about the world observing, comparing what passes before you. Serious education will not reveal life’s manifold mysteries to you but it makes them more vivid and hence more interesting to contemplate. Education enlightens, which is to say, lights up the world like nothing else, making it a richer, more intriguing place. It can free us from the confines of our presuppositions, our nationalities, our identities, our social class, our biases. A good college education reveals above all that education itself is a lifelong endeavor, one never entirely achieved, for there are always more books to read, art works to view, music to listen to, scientific horizons to explore, recipes to try, places to visit, mysteries to consider. This should energize you. Don’t worry about what’s next—just know that there will be a next chapter and you need to imagine yourselves at the center of that future.
We live in two worlds. Much of the time we live in the world of work and commerce, of taking and spending. This world reveres winners and marginalizes losers. Even the idioms we use in English, for example, emphasize taking and action. We say we take a walk, take an exam, take a shower, take a nap—we talk about things taking time. Trust me, we cannot “take” time—we have to give ourselves up to activities that require time. If you try to take a nap you will never fall asleep—give yourself up to a nap.
We also live or can live, in the world of “giving,” the world of the spirit, of awe, of compassion, of radical amazement, of empathy, what I am calling in this talk the world of Enchantment. When I was young, I admired powerful, clever and accomplished people. As I have grown older, I particularly came to admire kind people, good people.
To a large degree, the world has been desacralized. It is harder to develop that sense of awe, of reverence, of mystery. We here in the beautiful Finger Lakes, on a magnificent campus, on the shores of spectacular Seneca Lake, have an advantage. I often remind my students to try to see the lake at least once a day. If that doesn’t inspire awe, I don’t know what will. As Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “wonders are all around us, we just have to open our eyes to see them."
But, of course, there are more serious challenges to overcome. How do we break through these barriers of materialism, of the emphasis on “taking,” the world, of power relationships, of identities and ideologies that separate us, that minimize many of us?
We need to reinfuse Enchantment in our lives. Enchantment suggests magic or wonder and in some sense that is exactly what I mean by the term: the enchantment of seeing a world filled with everyday people whose gifts—often hidden from others and even from themselves—can redeem, heal and save us. The concept of Enchantment was expressed by Walt Whitman’s assertion that human beings “contain multitudes.” Or maybe it begins with the claim in Genesis, that human beings have inherent worth because they are created in the image of God, “bezelem Elohim” as the text reads in the original Hebrew. This means that every human being is endowed with the intrinsic dignities of infinite value, equality and uniqueness. None of us are reducible to a single belief or identity. Whitman wrote in the first person—“I am large, I contain multitudes”—and knowing this about ourselves means acknowledging it in others. The Book of Genesis may have been one of the first texts to see all of humankind as bound by a universal covenant yet recognizing the principle of individuality and what Rabbi Sacks calls “the dignity of difference.” Our challenge is whether we can make space for difference. If we are believers, can we hear the voice of God in a language, a sensibility, a culture not our own? Can we recognize our face, as philosopher Emanuel Levinas asks, in the face of the stranger? That is where Enchantment comes in. As a way to encounter the world, it asks us to take deeper notice of one another, not just in terms of what confounds or confronts us, but also in what delights and dazzles us. Enchantment is an experience of wonder with an object, a person or idea that we didn’t know before. It starts with curiosity, rather than rejection. It delights in our shared humanity, as well as in the differences that make human beings and societies so fascinating. How do we go from being threatened by each other’s diversity, to delighting in that diversity, knowing that it is nothing more than a reflection of our own? We do so by re-enchanting ourselves with one another, by delighting in difference, by looking for complexity where it might be easier to see simplicity, and we have to work on becoming grateful for what we have and not focus on what we don’t have. The writer Ann Lamont in her memoir TRAVELING MERCENARIES talks about her most favorite prayers. They are: “help me, help me, help me” and “thank you, thank you, thank you.” Generally, I would say the happiest people I know are grateful people. I think ungrateful people have a very hard time being happy. That is the real meaning of giving a gift, because it induces the response of gratitude. What does the gesture mean? It emphasizes the worth of the other, that you matter, that I recognize and appreciate you. Teaching, when it really works as it should, is a reciprocal relationship, is a form of gift giving, what Martin Buber calls an I—Thou or I—You relationship characterized by respect, mutuality and generosity.
The other point I would make is that we can endure almost anything provided we believe that our life has meaning and purpose. It was the psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl in MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING who powerfully made this point. It was as a prisoner in a Nazi death camp that Frankl observed that people need a sense of purpose to maintain a will to live. There are many kinds of meaning---personal meanings derived from relationships--- meaning derived from work ---- meaning derived from attachment to a cause --- transcendent meaning --- it doesn’t matter. So our task is to search for meaning in our lives and to cultivate a posture of enchantment facing the world characterized by awe, a sense of wonder, gratitude and responsibility ----- to build relationships across difference and to hone our ability to listen and respond to the needs of others . Never doubt your ability to help. “What can I really accomplish” we ask ourselves. “Who will listen to me?” Every person without exception has the abilities to illuminate their corner of the world. Humanity is a continuum—something that happens in the farthest corner of the planet will eventually affect your life. In earlier generations, we were far more isolated, and may have been able to insulate ourselves and our communities. That is plainly no longer the case. We interact with each other at every turn, at every level. We cannot afford to remain on the sidelines waiting for a crisis to hit home. Indifference is not neutral; it is an active, destructive force. Elie Wiesel often said, he said it here when the Colleges gave him an honorary degree in 1982 and when he addressed the graduates, “the opposite of love is not hate, the opposite of love is indifference.”
In the Talmud there is a discussion between the great Rabbinical sages, Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Elisha. Rabbi Elisha asks Rabbi Meir, “Where can I find the messiah?” “You can find him at the Dung Gate of the walled city of Jerusalem.” “At the Dung Gate where the lepers are outcast”? “How will I recognize him?” “You will recognize him,” Rabbi Meir says. “He sits among the lepers near the gate and bandages their sores one by one.” Find a cause, sit next to the outcasts at the dung gate, bandage someone’s wounds, smile at the person next to you, cherish your friends, work on being grateful, be grateful for the wonderful opportunities that await you out there—that is how we might yet build a healthier and more sustainable world – Kein Yehi Ratzon ---- may it come to pass. That is why I have hope today, Why I am filled with gratitude, because I know you will do your part to make that happen, to re-enchant the world.