Rules to Live By?

It’s graduation season. Those of us who have the opportunity to address a group of college graduates, high school graduates or Confirmation students consider how to reduce all of life’s lessons down to a few simple rules.  While it may be a trite endeavor, it’s a powerful opportunity to remind ourselves of a central question: What is the ikar, the central point, the most meaningful essence, of life?

Perhaps you have seen the new video going around of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 address to the graduating students at Kenyon College entitled This is Water. When I first watched the video, what resonated most for me was Wallace’s reminder to everyone that a little perspective, allowing yourself to consider another’s point of view or experience or struggle, will go a long way to help you navigate the stresses of your own life with grace. The kindness we extend to others actually benefits us.

Wallace’s attempt to capture the ikar of a life well-lived reminded me of a book by Robert Fulghum that came out in 1986 entitled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. This was Fulghum’s number one most important rule: Share everything. It’s the same idea, that acknowledging another’s needs and wants, and the kindness that it requires to see those wants, allows you to live a more meaningful life.

The Midrash tells us that Rabbi Hillel was asked essentially the same question: what is the ikar of Torah, or perhaps extrapolating a bit, of life? His answer: “That which is hateful to you do not do to any person.” Love your neighbor as yourself. Be kind to others.

Perhaps it is not an accident in Jewish tradition that at this time of year, as we celebrate the Festival of Shavuot, we read the story of Ruth. This megillah, or scroll, is primarily about kindness; the kindness that Ruth, a Moabite, shows her mother-in-law Naomi by aligning herself with Naomi’s people when all the men of their family have died, and in turn the kindness Boaz shows Ruth by allowing her to glean in his fields. Ruth’s and Boaz’s kindness is so important to our tradition that the megillah takes pains to establish a blood line from Ruth and Boaz to King David in the final verses of the megillah. We are to learn that kindness leads to nobility and greatness.

So important is Ruth’s influence in our history, that the Midrash places her at the side of King Solomon, another descendant of Ruth and Boaz, when he is adjudicating his most famous case. King Solomon is asked to settle a dispute between two women who both claim to be the mother of the same child.  Solomon orders the women to “cut” the child in half, and when one woman agrees to this plan and the other woman is willing to give up the child so he remains unharmed, Solomon is able to say who must be the child’s real mother. In the Midrash, Ruth is sitting beside Solomon, as a guiding influence of kindness and ability to understand how the other actors in the unfolding drama are feeling. Only with the reminder of Ruth’s approach to life is Solomon able to judge such a difficult case with grace and greatness.

The goal of any worthy graduation address is to give the gift of a guiding principle that stays with the graduates long after the address is done. When you start to see the world in terms of acts of kindness and understanding, you begin to see these forces at work everywhere. I recently saw an episode from the first season of the HBO series Enlightened, where the main character begins to see her mother’s face everywhere she looks, especially when she sees the nameless faces of those with whom she is riding the bus. When she sees her mother’s face on each of these people, she is able to see each of them with kindness and understanding of the struggles of his or her life, and her instinct to judge each of these strangers harshly and only with concern for how he or she is impacting her melts away. That is treating others as you would like to be treated. That is Ruth. That is King Solomon.

If we look for any rule to live by, the ikar of life, emphasizing kindness by considering another’s point of view is certainly a worthy one. But as with all guiding principles, this rule is easy to say, and difficult to make an automatic response to events in our lives. How often are we able to reflect on the central question of how we should live our lives and recalibrate as we move forward? The graduation address may be a trite exercise, but we need to be reminded.