06/25/2013 01:56 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2013

Choose, Lose and Jews: A Commencement Address

Consciously Choose

The Bible famously proclaims "Choose Life." Most interpretations of the verse focus on the word "life" -- its broader meaning and implications. But I'm more interested in the verb that precedes it: Choose. The text commends that we "Choose Life" -- meaning act with intention, rather than just allowing it just to happen; because in fact, if you aren't mindful, thoughtful, careful, and deliberate -- decisions will simply occur by default.

For example, no offense to my many lawyer friends, but that's why there are so many attorneys in this country. (At one point, there were actually more lawyers in the city of Houston than in the entire country of Japan!) The reason is because when people don't know what else to do, they go to law school -- I know, because I'm one of them! And they explain it away by saying, "Well, it's a good degree and education to have" -- which it is - "but I'm not sure what I'll end up doing with it." Well, what they end up doing with it is practicing law -- not because they ever truly wanted to, but because they didn't arrest the momentum of life that moves like a river and simply carries you along with it.

Whether it's working as a banker on Wall Street in New York or as a corporate lawyer on Smith Street here in Houston, both are absolutely honorable professions -- but make sure that they are jobs you consciously choose, rather than passively default to.

Dare to Lose
You don't have to be a finance or investment expert to know that there's a relationship between risk and reward. You know that intuitively and from your own time at Emery. You wouldn't have experienced the camaraderie of being on a team or in a cast, the joy of winning or the exhilaration from performing if you hadn't put yourself out there. You had to Dare to Lose.

The overwhelming evidence from studies on the subject of "regret" makes clear that most people looking back at their lives point to things they didn't do as the occasions they wish they could do over. Journalist and author Sydney Harris put it this way: "Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable."

Consider for a moment what you felt standing at the grave of Michael Levine in the military cemetery Har Herzl in Jerusalem; I'm not suggesting that Michael's choices are the exact ones you should emulate; what I am saying is he took this idea to heart -- the notion that a life lived without the possibility of loss is bereft of meaning. So whether your passion is art or business, or your pursuit is politics or another person -- remember that love and loss are two sides of the same coin, and in order to be rich spiritually, you must accept them together.

Strive to be Jews
At the risk of being misunderstood, allow me to first explain what I don't mean by this phrase. I'm not suggesting you necessarily become more religious. No, when I say "Strive to be Jews" I'm talking about something different -- an idea that relates to Torah portion Shelach-Lecha from the Book of Numbers, which tells the story of the spies who were sent ahead of the Israelites to scout out the situation in Israel, the Promised Land.

As you recall, they came back and reported both good and bad news to Moses: On the one hand, they confirmed that the land was indeed "flowing with milk and honey." However, they also said the following: "The people who live there are powerful, and the cities fortified and very large. . . . We can't attack those people. . . We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we seemed in theirs."

In our circle, we talked about fear and faith, and we talked about self-perception, projection and self-actualization. In reality, the Canaanites were the ones who were scared -- recall, these rag-tag Hebrew slaves had overcome the mighty Egyptians and destroyed the powerful Amalekites. But so long as the Israelites saw themselves as incapable, they were. According to most commentators, the spies' fatal flaw was weak self-esteem.

However, there's another, very different interpretation which I'd like to share with you today. According to Hasidic rabbis, it just doesn't make sense that the spies would have had this crisis of faith -- in themselves or in God. After all, the text says they were "princes, chieftains and leaders." In fact, according to the Chasids, the spies had no doubt that the Israelites could defeat the Canaanites in battle. So then, why did they come back with the report that they did? Because, according to this more mystical interpretation, their concern wasn't physical, it was spiritual.

The spies didn't want to conquer the land and become another nation among nations because doing so would mean having to leave the wilderness. And though it may sound surprising or counter-intuitive, the wilderness had become a sanctuary of sorts -- a place where the Israelites could forge a special relationship with God outside the presence of others. Remember, this is the place where they ate manna from heaven, drank water from a rock, witnessed miracles first-hand, and walked under a canopy of divine protection. Here, the Israelites didn't face the trials and tribulations of mundane society.

As we know, however, the Israelites do enter the Land. Reason being, Judaism is not a religion of monastic retreat from the world. As attractive as it may have been, remaining in the wilderness wasn't consistent with the Jewish mandate -- to engage. More specifically, to build an actual society, one replete with economic and political realities, that's based on laws and ethics. According to Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of England, "The Jewish task is not to fear the real world, but to enter it & transform it. That's what the spies did not understand." And that's what I mean by strive to be Jews.

Truth is, the Hasidic interpretation is essentially a psychoanalytical one: In some ways, the spies fear adulthood. They want to remain not only isolated, but under the ongoing protection of their parent -- immune from the challenge of confronting freedom and its responsibilities. And so we come back to you, near-graduates. Soon, very soon, you will leave the honeymoon of high school - a period where your parents regularly provided a canopy of protection. But you must leave this "wilderness" to confront a new reality - your own. You do so equipped with knowledge & skills, intelligence, talent, passion & commitment, bolstered and backed by love and support that will always be there. But please heed my words: As you forge your unique paths, Consciously Choose, Dare to Lose, and Strive to be Jews who accept the empowering burden of working not only to shape their own lives, but of improving those of the people around you.