In the month of June, the word “commencement” seems to pop up a lot, because graduations are known as commencement exercises. I had a colleague who would say that the only exercise he gets all year is when he attends commencement exercises in June.
I was recently speaking with a friend who insisted that “commence” means end. Why else, he argued, would graduation be called commencement? Despite his logical reasoning, to commence means to begin. So why indeed are graduations called beginnings when they mark the end of one’s schooling?
Some offer a historical explanation. During the Middle Ages, students and teachers ate in large halls, with students sitting together at long tables and teachers at a separate table on a raised podium. When students completed their studies, graduates would sit with their teachers as equals at a common table (from Latin “com” – common – and “mensa” – table). The celebration of that transition became known as the “commencement.”
Others argue that commencement is metaphorical. The end of the academic journey marks the beginning of the next phase of one’s life. A graduation ceremony marks the beginning of the journey that will bring the graduate to new vistas and opportunities.
In 1942, the British army routed the previously unstoppable forces of German General Rommel at El Alamein, driving the German troops out of Egypt. The battle marked a turning point in Northern Africa during World War II. Shortly afterwards, in a speech delivered at London’s Mansion House [the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London], British Prime Minister Winston Churchill quipped: “Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
During my years in rabbanus, at the n’ilas ha’chag at the conclusion of Simchas Torah, I often shared the following with my congregation: “We set out on a journey that began almost two months ago with the first blowing of the shofar on Rosh Chodesh Elul. It continued with S’lichos, Rosh HaShanah and the shofar, followed by Aseres Y’mei T’shuvah, Tashlich, Kaparos, the holy day of Yom Kippur with all its prayers, building the sukkah, choosing a lulav and esrog, celebrating the joyous holiday of Sukkos, Simchas Beis HaSho’eivah, Hoshana Rabbah, Sh’mini Atzeres, T’filas Geshem, culminating with the intense dancing of Simchas Torah. And now, after traversing that glorious journey of introspection, growth, and spiritual commitment, we have finally arrived – at the beginning!”
The same can be said regarding the Yom Tov of Shavuos. After the regal Seder night and the Yom Tov of Pesach, followed by seven weeks counting the Omer, and culminating with the Yom Tov of Shavuos, we have finally arrived at the beginning.
If someone is preparing to take part in a major bike race, during the prior weeks he will work to build up his endurance and train himself and properly pace himself to ensure that he is agile enough for the race. He will also spend a tremendous amount of time choosing his bike, painstakingly choosing the best tires, and ensuring that he has the most comfortable bike seat and that all the parts of his bike are top quality and best suited for his comfort and performance.
On the day of the big race, he will eat a hearty breakfast and then ride his bike to the starting line along with the other contenders. All his work was to get to that point. From that point onward, he is on his own. His trainer, family, and friends can only watch from the sidelines. Now it’s up to him to complete what he set out to accomplish.
Pesach, S’firah, and Shavuos are all training to bring us to the starting line. When Shavuos ends, it marks the end of the beginning. At that point, it is incumbent upon us to continue our mission without the added reminders and encouragement of S’firas HaOmer. Now comes the real challenge of living life based on Torah.
The same is true when Simchas Torah ends. It is then that the real challenge and goal begins – to live a daily life with the commitments and newfound spiritual levels attained during the previous weeks.
The Klausenberger Rebbe (Divrei Yatziv 1:94), quotes Rabbeinu Gershom, who explained that an important reason why one celebrates a siyum is because when one completes one section of Torah study, the custom is to immediately begin the subsequent study, in a never-ending quest for more Torah learning.
Every spiritual accomplishment should be celebrated not just because of what one has achieved, but because it gives him the ability to achieve more in the future, “from strength to strength” (T’hilim 84:7).
Now that Shavuos has ended and we have finally arrived at the beginning, we set out for the real journey ahead.