This past week at my shul, Ohr Torah, we celebrated the amazing achievements of our graduates at our annual Graduation Kiddush, spelling out the well-earned honors and awards of each individual. In the modern world’s challenging environment it is very hard to excel and we should take every opportunity to celebrate those milestones and accomplishments.
The week before we cheered on our graduates, we had another kiddush where we celebrated people who often get overlooked during this festive season.
Motivational speaker and author Sara Borgstede wrote a popular blog post listing some of the achievements that she thought we don’t recognize in our graduates. With apologies to her, I want to expand on her thoughts. For it seems that Jewish history is replete with examples of the importance of those who did not walk an uninterrupted path to success, and who required extra motivation and help along the way.
In our shul’s earlier kiddush, we celebrated all those students who must try that much harder to get the basic skills. For these kids, the first steps are the hardest, whether it is learning to read, to add or simply to sit in class and play well with other children. These students may have to add extra hours to an already long day by coming home to an extra tutoring or therapy session after school. This one hits particularly close to home for me, as I too struggled academically when I was younger, so I know just how hard it is, both in terms of work and psychological stress.
One of the greatest stories in rabbinic teaching is about showing how hard work on the most basic tasks can lead a student to success. Rebbe Akiva was first educated at age 40, where he sat in a class with young children trying to learn his letters. What kept him going was having one person, his wife, believe in him. He compared his struggle to a vision of a drop of water wearing away at a rock. He saw that water drop and drop on this incredibly hard rock and the constant small drops were able to eventually break through. This effort of working and working until the material finally broke through his mind is the same one that many children must use to finally learn.
During that kiddush, we celebrated all those students who have health problems, have overcome depression or feel alone and out of place. One of the greatest paytainim, Hebrew poets, was Shlomo Ibn Gabriol, who was orphaned at an early age. He wrote a number of poems in which he complained of his weak physique, small stature and ugliness as he was frequently ill from childhood on. Yet, his poems are still read today in every machzor during the chaggim and serve to inspire and motivate many.
We celebrated all those parents who struggle beyond belief to make sure their children get a Jewish education. They have traded in that better car, vacation or other luxuries for a gift that will bring eternal reward for themselves and the Jewish people. People who are working one, two or three jobs if necessary to maintain an Orthodox lifestyle for future generations.
We celebrated all those parents who stay up late at night studying with their children, who come home exhausted after a difficult day and still find time to spend with the family. Those who are relearning, or learning for the first time, algebra, dikduk or Gemara. It may take a village to raise a child, but without an extraordinary effort by the parents there is not much hope for success. We can look at our greatest philosopher and Middle Age sage Rambam, who would work with his family and community while his eyes were drooping from exhaustion.
We celebrated all those parents who can see the unique talents of their child that may not be immediately valued by society. For them, we look towards Dovid HaMelech, who was considered the runt of the family compared to his more fit and smarter siblings. Yet when Shmuel HaNavi came to anoint a new king, it was Dovid who Hashem picked.
Finally, we honored all the teachers who could have easily chosen a career with a lot higher pay and much more recognition, but instead chose to truly build the future of our people. For all their late nights, laying out their own money and time for which they are never compensated, and love for every child—we thank you. Every successful individual looks back and credits some teacher who inspired him or her. Teachers, you will never get the great recognition you deserve. Every success story is a notch on your belt for the great sacrifice you continuously make. We compare you to none other than Moshe Rabeinu whose best title is not leader of the people but Rabbeinu—our teacher.
For all those on this list, we at Congregation Ohr Torah dedicated a kiddush in your honor. We realize that it is not nearly enough to recognize your efforts but it is the little that we can do. We
encourage you to stay strong, as you are the unsung heroes that make up our long history, and contribute to our future.
By Rabbi Marc Spivak
Rabbi Marc Spivak is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ohr Torah in West Orange.