Beth Lesch, MA/MBA'15 Brandeis University

Beth Lesch, MA/MBA'15, Brandeis University, reflects on commencement and how "difficult beginnings give way to peace" in her speech at the Hornstein Program's 2015 Commencement Ceremony.

Reflections on Commencement — 
  Difficult Beginnings
  Give Way to Peace

The following is Beth Lesch's "interlude" speech to the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program’s Class of 2015 during their commencement ceremony on May 17, 2015 at Brandeis University. Beth Lesch is a 2015 MA/MBA graduate from the Hornstein Program. 

 By Beth Lesch
May 17, 2015

Honored faculty, colleagues, family and friends —

I am Beth Lesch, and I want to speak briefly about commencement. What is commencement? The Oxford English Dictionary defines commencement as, “a ceremony at which otherwise distinguished people wear funny hats” but more literally, it means a start or a beginning.

Our rabbis discuss the notion of beginnings in the Mekhilta, an ancient collection of interpretive expansions on the book of Exodus. There, Rabbi Yishmael tells us that “All beginnings are difficult.”

All beginnings are difficult.

What is that supposed to mean exactly? Is the beginning of a new year difficult? The beginning of a marathon? The beginning of Brenda’s accounting class? What makes something a true “beginning” and what’s difficult about it?

Well, to understand what Rabbi Yishmael is talking about, we have to look at the context. He doesn’t just make this statement abstractly: It’s a comment on a verse in the Torah.

So what’s the verse? The verse is from the book of Exodus, when the children of Israel have just left Egypt and have arrived at the base of a mountain in the wilderness of Sinai, and Moses, their leader, goes up to the top of the mountain and God calls out to him and says: “And now, if you will surely listen to my voice and you will keep my covenant, you will be a treasure to Me from among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine.”

And Rabbi Yishmael comments there, on that verse: “All beginnings are difficult.”

In other words, God is asking this band of recently freed slaves to accept his commandments, to follow all of his laws, to live lives that are ethical, infused with intention, with spirituality, and with care for the other… that’s a true beginning. And Rabbi Yishmael confesses to us: that’s difficult. That’s asking a lot. That is not an easy transition to make, from living a life without commitments and commandments to living a holy one.

This might be surprising to us. We might think that our rabbis view the Sinai revelation as a moment of pure joy, ecstasy, and goodness. And we do hear those voices in our tradition — but we also hear this voice, the voice of realism. What we are called upon as Jews to do in this world — it’s difficult.

But actually, that’s too simple a reading of Rabbi Yishmael. Living a holy, mission-driven, purpose-filled life — it’s not all difficult — it’s the beginning which is difficult. All beginnings are difficult. A similar midrash on the Book of Genesis makes this point: “For tzaddikim, righteous ones, their beginning is filled with suffering. But their end is filled with peace.” Doing the right thing is difficult, at the beginning — but it gets easier.

So how does this apply to us?

Personally, I’m reflecting right now on two beginnings. The first beginning was the start of Hornstein. It was great — but it was also difficult. Many of us had just moved from other states and left behind our social networks; many of us were returning to school after years out of the classroom; many of us were giving up jobs and paychecks and exchanging them for student loans and penny pinching; and many of us were wrestling with a lack of clarity about how we wanted to contribute to the world. So it’s no surprise that it was difficult.

But I think it got easier. We fell into the rhythm and got comfortable with one another, with our loving faculty members, and with our own strengths and aspirations. And at a certain point, even amidst all of the homework, it started to become really fun. The difficult beginning gave way, and our sufferings turned to peace.

So now that we’re finally in the groove, finally comfortable, it seems almost cruel that we have a new beginning staring us in the face: “commencement,” that is, leaving the Hornstein bubble and going out into the world.

Again, many of us will move to new states and build new social networks in new places. We will have to get used to new rhythms and new colleagues and new jobs — though hopefully with less penny pinching this time. Many of us are still striving for clarity, working out how we’re going to make our unique contributions to strengthen Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people.

So it’s going to be difficult. But that’s what it means to begin. That’s our yoke — that’s the reality of living a holy, mission-driven, purpose-filled life. And we’ll draw strength from the promise of our sages that the beginning doesn’t last forever, that the sufferings will yield to peace — and that we’re all going through it together.