This is a commencement address that I recently delivered to a graduating class of Rabbis from Rabbinical Seminaries International (RSI). I hope that its call to service resonates for you.
Congratulations on your ordinations as Rabbis! You are about to enter a path that will take will take you in directions that you can not now imagine. In the words of the great 20th century theologian, Dr. Seuss,
Oh the places you'll go!
As you travel, though, you will inevitably come to forks in the road; moments when you are faced with choices, and you must decide which is the right direction to follow. There are two powerful spiritual teachings about how to make this decision: One teaching encourages us to "create our own reality"; to visualize our personal goals in order to bring toward us that which we most want. The second teaching tells us to "let go and let God"; to listen for guidance and to submit our egos to Divine will.
These teachings appear to be exact opposites: The first seeks to strengthen individual will; the second to dissolve it. Yet both are true, and both are needed. We can't live only with the goal of satisfying our own needs, because this can lead to narcissism and indifference, but we also can't simply wait to hear from God, because this can lead to inaction and confusion. At times we may feel the tug toward one approach, and at different times we will be drawn to the other, so how can we decide? This is an essential question for you as Rabbis, or for anyone dedicated to living on a spiritual path; a life of meaning and purpose.
A hint to the resolution of these two teachings can be found in the writing of the Biblical Prophet Zachariah. In a mystical vision that contains direction on how to heal a world torn by violence and hatred, he heard these famous words,
Not by valor (literally "soldiering"), not by strength, but with My Spirit.
In other words, while work needs to be done, it can not be effectively accomplished by physical power or force of will alone. Zachariah is told that he must begin his mission with alignment to spirit, in order to manifest the highest that is in himself, for his own growth and for the benefit of others. He is told to enter with the intention to be of service to others.
As all spiritual traditions teach, right intention leads to right, effective action. So enter with the intention to be of service! When you begin in this way you will find that the direction for action is embedded in the connection to spirit, and you will know what to do, free of the pull of ego. You will not need to choose between your will and the Divine will, because you will see that these ultimately merge.
Whenever I am called to lead a prayer service, conduct a wedding or funeral, or speak in public, I say this short prayer:
May what I am about to say not be about me. May my words and actions be for the benefit of those who are here and are in need.
I have found that whenever I say these words with convinction and sincerity, I become a receptive conduit, and somehow the right words and actions come to me. In these moments I am more effective and more fulfilled than when I seek personal recognition and gain. Paradoxically, this is both impersonal (because it's not "me", in the ego sense, speaking and acting) and yet the most personally satisfying experiences of my life. I have also found, though, that it's very easy to loose my way. The pulls of ambition, anxiety, validation, insecurity, fear, and indifference can draw me away from entering with the intention to serve. I have discovered, however, that there are several things to do, which help bring me back. The following are a few suggestions:
1. Maintain regular contact with inspirational writings
Rely on the writings of great teachers to motivate and re-energize you. These can include spiritual and motivational books, prayer books, religious texts, Holy Books, or other documents that touch your spirit and inspire you to recommit to service
2. Develop a gratitude practice
Find time to express gratitude for the people in your life and the blessing of your existence. I use the morning commute time on the train to meditate and say "thank you" for all these blessings that I all-too-regularly take for granted. Gratitude is the surest "pattern interrupt" for feelings of fear and indifference - which put us in a defensive position and lead us away from service - and brings us back to spirit.
3. Become sensitive to inner voices, and listen for direction
We all have a myriad of inner voices that call our attention: the voice of ambition, judgment, desire, fear, love... Among all these voices is one that is different. It is clear, fearless, endless, and without personal agenda. And when it speaks we immediately recognize its truth. This is the "still small voice" of the Divine that is the call of spirit. Learn to distinguish this from all the other voices, and listen for its direction and guidance.
4. Open your heart to others
Make contact with another human being at the deepest level that you can. See that at the core this person is exactly the same as you, with the same essential needs and challenges, and animated by the same flow of spirit. When this connection is made, you will naturally feel compelled to serve, knowing that healing another also heals you and furthers the growth of the world.
As Rabbis you have committed to be agents of positive change, and to embody the highest vision of human potential. The 3rd of the Ten Commandants, "Do not take God's name in vain" is not an injunction against using foul language, but tells us that we must never use spirit (God's name) for unholy purposes - to manipulate, impress, or control others in order to satisfy ego needs. Therefore, we must be careful and deliberate in deciding how to proceed. May you always remember, therefore, to enter in service. When you do, you will find that your journey will be filled with joy and purpose.
Again, congratulations on achieving the title of Rabbi - "my teacher". May God bless you with health, abundance, and peace, and may your life be a blessing.