Here is a loose transcription of my dvar Torah at the Yeshiva of Flatbush High School’s 25th year reunion, delivered on Sunday, April 21:
Mazal tov! This event is both wonderful and overwhelming, and I feel as I did at our tenth reunion: I wish that we could all attend camp with one another for a couple of months to give us enough time to catch up. So many friends, so little time…there is an 80’s reference somewhere, but I guess that’s what Facebook is for! It really is a special occasion having everyone together under the same roof again; thank you so much to all of you for coming tonight. I admit, twenty-five years ago, the last thing I thought I would do at this event was give the dvar Torah, but it is an honor, and I thank you for that honor. Should anyone visit Philadelphia, our shul in Center City / Rittenhouse Square is called Mekor Habracha; please look me up.
One of our shul members belongs to a basketball league comprised of alumni from his high school. Each team has jerseys of a different color, but the clever slogan on the back is identical: “The older we get, the better we were.” In a perhaps more complimentary sense, this is how I feel about my time at the Yeshiva of Flatbush High School. The older I get, the more I appreciate the unique experience Flatbush provided for me: the wonderful education I received, both secular and Judaic; the love of Jews, Judaism and Israel; the exceptional individuals that made up our class; the great friendships, and, of course, the fun times. I feel so very fortunate to have attended with all of you.
Recently, Jake made a hilariously honest post on Facebook: “Only three days until my HS reunion – I had better win the Nobel Prize quickly!” When attending a reunion, putting on a good impression is of paramount importance. It is the time to spruce up your resume, to take advantage of what is left of your looks (my wife keeps reminding me that they still haven’t invented anything that grows hair), and to generally impress old friends with your immense success as a “grown up.” So when I was informed of the reunion date, I was disappointed at first, because it was scheduled in the midst of the “Omer” period, and my custom is not to shave during certain intervals of the Omer. (I therefore apologize for my unkempt appearance!) But I am a firm believer that everything emanates from God, there is deep significance to the Jewish calendar, and that there are profound messages found in the corresponding calendar date that are extremely relevant to our lives. Thus, I posit that the date of our reunion is more fortunate than my beard might imply.
The custom not to shave during the Omer is an expression of mourning for the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who perished in a plague over the Omer period. This custom seems inappropriate, as Ramban (Nachmanides) argues that the Omer’s occurrence between Pesach and Shavuot makes it a semi- holiday, similar to Chol Hamoed. This may reveal a significant notion regarding mourning: it is not meant to evoke sadness, or to indulge our tendencies to wallow in anguish. Rather, mourning is meant to encourage and provide space for transition. More specifically, the Hebrew word for mourning is “aveilut”, whose root is “aval”, meaning “however” or “but” (The reason I know this is obviously due to the superior Hebrew education I received at the Yeshiva of Flatbush where I learned “ivrit b’ivrit”!). “However/but” is a word of transition, as in “(point A), BUT/HOWEVER (point B).” Aveilut is indeed an expression of a profoundly difficult “however” in our lives, a process meant to provide a healthy transition from a world in which our loved one was alive to one in which they are no longer with us. Indeed, psychological studies have shown that those who practice the aveilut rituals are better able to adjust after their loss.
The Jewish mourner also undergoes a process of “Nechama”, translated as “consolation”, in which friends and family offer comfort by visiting the mourner. “Nechama” has a double meaning: “consolation” and “to change one’s mind” (as in “Vayinachem hashem al hara’ah asher diber la’asot l’amo”:”God changed his mind and decided not to destroy the Jewish people as he has previously stated”). “Changing one’s mind” again indicates transition. Friends are especially capable of providing consolation, of “changing our minds” and guiding us through the various facets of loss.
The Talmud identifies the flaw of Rabbi Akiva’s students as “lo nahago kavod zeh l’zeh”, “they did not respect one another”; they failed to provide friendship. In contrast, the Omer leads us to the holiday of Shavuot, the holiday celebrating Torah, also known as the “brit” or “relationship” between God and the Jewish people. A critical feature of this relationship is the connection between Jews, all of whom share a history that includes Mount Sinai, where our ancestors stood as good friends at the bottom of the mountain, “k’ish echad b’lev echad” “as one individual with one heart”.
So the Omer, during which we recognize the strength of friendship and mourn its breakdown in Rabbi Akiva’s students, is a particularly appropriate time for us to celebrate our friendship as classmates together. At our age and experience level, it becomes obvious that life is replete with many “ups and downs”. We don’t have to look further than the city of our senior trip, Boston, to see how tumultuous the world is on a macro level, as well as an individual level. As a rabbi, I witness firsthand how complicated life can be, and my consistent observation is that those who have strong friendships are best able to cope with life’s trials. Current friendships are not the only important components of our support group. When we search ourselves and become more deeply aware of our makeup, we often find that it is our high school friends, even those we are no longer in touch with, who helped form and develop some of the fundamental aspects of our personalities. And ultimately, they are the ones who enable us to endure life’s inevitable transitions successfully. For this, I am eternally grateful that I attended this special high school, where I had such wonderful classmates and friends as you.
Our esteemed classmate, Eric B. Fisher, wrote a beautiful short essay on the last page of our yearbook about friendship (which I admittedly only read for this first time just last week) in which he writes, “Past friendships have taught me to build future friendships. Past friendships will not remain as ‘past’ relationships. Through each step of the future that lies ahead of us, we know that there are those friends to whom we can always return.”
Wishing everyone a happy 25th!