China and its Discontents

Archive for May, 2010

Susannah Heschel at Trinity College

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Susannah Heschel spoke at Baccalaureate during Trinity College’s 184th graduation weekend, and I thought her sermon was superb. Having grown up in a theologically conservative Episcopal church and having attended the services of many similar churches, I’ve found it so rare to hear a sermon that challenges the parish to action. Heschel framed scripture, drawing on all faiths and traditions, as the foundation for a ‘sacred trust’ that compels us to a ‘moral mission’.

For the first few minutes, I thought she was going to take the predictably boring course of sentimentalism and tired graduation advice. She drew her listeners in to a comfortable place, so that the charge she was to give would be accepted. She related a story according to Jewish oral tradition: a young scholar tells his Rabbi that after much study, he has gone through the Talmud three times. The Rabbi replies, ‘But how much of the Talmud has gone through you?’

“How much of Trinity has gone through you?”

Trinity’s largest major is economics. Many of those graduates, and many others besides, will pursue a career in investment banking. In fact, the commencement speaker this year is John Bogle, retired CEO of Vanguard. But as Heschel intoned again and again, we, as members of the Trinity College community and members of the world community, must be charged with a deeper purpose. One of the readings during the service, from the Tao te Ching, begins, “Reputation. Life. Which cultivates more love? Life. Wealth. Which is worth more? Gaining things, or having nothing. Which brings more trouble and distress?” Those that are not content with themselves alone will never be satisfied.

Heschel connected this moral imperative with all of the progress that she has seen and all of the potential she sees in the world. She matriculated to Trinity during the first year of coeducation. Since then, the civil rights and feminist movements have advanced racial and gender equality in the US. Apartheid has been abolished. A Black man is President of the United States. But these are just a beginning. Shias and Sunnis, Hutus and Tutsis, and people of all color and creed are bound in common humanity.

“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” – Amos, 5:24.

This passage, quoted by Heschel, left the deepest impression on me. For some time, one of my favorite quotes has come from William Sloane Coffin’s conversation with Henry Kissinger, in which Coffin cried, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, and your job, sir, is to figure out the irrigation system!” Ever since I came to Trinity, I have considered my purpose in my education, and my purpose when I go out into the world. I ask, ‘What is my vocation?’ This rumination started when I went on Quest, the freshman orientation camping trip, and has evolved since then. But it can best be put: to build the irrigation system by which justice and righteousness flows across the earth. That is a far more eloquent statement than where I started out two years ago.

Susannah Heschel charged the Trinity College Class of 2010 with a mission – to bring about justice and righteousness through their daily lives and work, and even be open to changing their current path which might not afford them the ability to do so. Susannah Heschel’s father the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “The opposite of good is not evil, the opposite of good is indifference.” The Class of 2010 cannot be indifferent, and neither can you.