To my child on the way to college

This is the beginning of your life’s great adventure. At your bar/bat mitzvah, we spoke about you becoming an adult.
August 31, 2011

This is the beginning of your life’s great adventure. At your bar/bat mitzvah, we spoke about you becoming an adult. But that wasn’t exactly true. The next Monday morning, you were back in middle school. This time, it’s for real. You’re leaving home, going away to school, beginning your life as an independent adult. It’s exhilarating and terrifying (for both of us)! So, just in case I forget to say this when we drop you off at the dorm, here are a few words of wisdom. Torah is our source of truth … even now.

1. In the beginning, God created heaven and earth. The earth was unformed and void … And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. … And God separated the light from the darkness. … It was evening and morning, a first day.

You won’t know that you are really independent until the day arrives when you run out of socks and underwear. In college, clean socks don’t magically materialize in your drawers like they did at home. On that fateful day, you will carry your bulging laundry bag down to the laundry room, together with a box of detergent and a pocketful of quarters. And there you will face a great decision: Do I follow the instructions and separate the lights from the darks, or throw it all into the washer at one time? This is not an insignificant dilemma: Do you abide by the wisdom of tradition, or blaze your own trail? No doubt, you will choose your own way … the road less traveled, and all that. You’ll throw it all into the washer. And for the rest of the semester, you’ll have pink underwear, murky brown T-shirts and pants shrunken a size too small. Listen to the word of Torah: Separate the light from the dark. Sometimes those older than you actually do know something.

2. God said: “Let there be a firmament in midst of the waters. And let the waters be gathered … that dry land may appear. …” It was evening and morning, a second day.

In college, people drink. A lot. It’s hard to find any social moment in college life without drinking. So be careful. I would tell you not to drink, ever. But I realize that’s not reasonable. At college, as in the rest of life, you need to develop judgment, discretion and the ability to say, “Enough.” So notice the way people drink. If they can’t seem to have a good time without alcohol, these aren’t people you want to be with. If friendship, conversation or intimacy depends upon alcohol, or other drugs, go find other friends. You’re better than that. Your soul is more valuable than that.

3. God said: “Let the earth sprout vegetation. … ” It was evening and morning, a third day.

God created fruits and vegetables. They’re food. Good food. So eat them. Every day. People in college think that Top Ramen, doughnuts and pizza are essential food groups. They think that beer provides a day’s vitamins. That’s no way to live. Eat reasonably, and you’ll find it easier to pay attention in class, to stay healthy and to feel well. Contrary to the conviction of every adolescent, you’re not invulnerable. So take care of your body. 

4. God said, “Let there be lights in the sky … to shine upon the earth. …” It was evening and morning, a fourth day.

Go outside. At least once each day. Take a walk; go for a run; breathe some fresh, non-air-conditioned air; look up at the stars; feel the peace of the woods. You’ll spend days on end in class, in the library, in a dorm room. Your eyes will only see cold florescent light. Go into the sunshine and connect with nature every day. Watch the sunset. Feel the wonder of the stars. The Chasidim of the Baal Shem Tov’s circle went out to the forests to listen for the voice of God. Try that. Your soul needs that renewal. 

5. God said, “Let the earth bring forth swarms of living creatures. …” It was evening and morning, a fifth day.

College is the most intense social experience you’ll ever have. At college, you will meet more people from more places and more cultures, backgrounds and faiths than at any other time in your life. Far more important than what you’ll be taught in classes is what you’ll learn from meeting people of all kinds — learning their ways, understanding their perspectives, listening to their stories. Open yourself to new friends. Don’t sit with the same people at dinner every night. Don’t sit next to the same people in class. Show a little chutzpah, walk up and begin a conversation with someone new each day. Remember, they’re just as strange to this college life as you are, and just as eager to meet new people.

That goes for professors, too. Whatever class you’re taking, go meet the professor in his or her office. Here’s a secret: Professors are tired of students who only ask about a grade or a test or an assignment. Go see your professors, introduce yourself and ask: How did you get into anthropology? Or chemistry? Or psychology? What is it that grabbed you about this discipline? Then sit and listen and enjoy. Every professor has a story. Every professor is just waiting for a student to ask. And every professor was driven to his or her discipline by deep passion. More than anything, each wants to share that passion. Go ask.

6. God said, “Let us make man in our image.” And it was evening and morning, a sixth day.

College life is intensely self-absorbed. It’s about your education, your experience, your growth. But the deeper truth is that you won’t learn or experience or grow so long as you’re focused only on yourself. College is about taking — taking classes, gaining knowledge, grasping wisdom. But the truth is that knowledge and wisdom are gained in giving, not taking. So give. Give of yourself. Go down to the local elementary school and volunteer to serve as a classroom assistant. Go down to the community garden and pick up a shovel. Go to the local hospital and find out what you can do to help and heal. Give of yourself, act selflessly, and you will find the best parts of yourself … your worth, your capacity to shape the world, your sense of purpose. There is no greater joy than that. And no more important form of education.

And on the seventh day, God rested.

Make Shabbat. Make one day a week special. All week, you’ll be working hard to develop your mind. Devote one day a week to your soul. Whatever makes you feel most authentic, most connected, most alive … devote one day a week to that. In college, you’re always being evaluated and measured. One day a week, remember that you’re more than your classes, more than your next exam, more than your GPA or your GRE. Celebrate the gifts of life. And if you find yourself at a synagogue, wrap yourself in the tallit we gave you on your bar/bat mitzvah, sing the prayers, feel the presence of God, and feel our presence and our love. We are proud that you’ve taken this step into the adventure of life. We’re with you, even far away.

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