May is here, and high school graduation is approaching. Soon these young people will go off to college or into the world. A verse from the Torah on its surface is about harvesting fruit, but it can teach us something about the purpose of these college years.
“When you enter the land and plant any tree for food you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before the Eternal; and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit — that its yield to you may be increased: I the Eternal am your God.” (Leviticus 19:23-25)
This direction is give as the Israelites are preparing to enter the Land of Israel. Their world is about to change.
For students going to college, their world is also about to change. Parents of young children feed them, clothe them, and teach them wrong from right. Then, they get to the age where they need to leave home and become their own people. College is often that time. Students leave their nests and go forth and explore. They meet new people, learn new things, and discover themselves independently from their parents. Presumably, this is when they need to begin taking care of themselves. It is a scary but exciting time for these students.
In the verse above, God is giving the Israelites instructions on how to fend for themselves and live independently. The instructions given will help sustain the Israelites for years to come. When we send our children off to college, we are giving our students the opportunity to take four years to grow and mature before they go out in the world. Like the fruit above, college students are given a safe time to mature.
For the past two years, I have had the wonderful opportunity to work as the rabbinic fellow and intern at Hillel at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I only witnessed two years of these students’ growth, but as I reflect, I can think of many examples of how they have each matured. There are students who have learned that they are worth it—worth having friends, worth having a voice, worth being alive. Some students have realized their capacity for being a leader and taking that step forward to exercise it. Those students have looked at their first few years of independence and are ready to share the lessons they learned with others. There are those who have solidified their Jewish identity and those whose thinking has been deeply challenged.
I have seen these changes in myself. When I look back on my undergraduate career, I definitely was learning independence and trying to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be after I received my degree. Upon entering HUC-JIR, I think back to the person I was then and realize how much has changed in the past five years as I prepare to be ordained and move to serve as an assistant rabbi at an incredible congregation.
We each leave our mark on every person we meet and every place we have been involved. Those places and people are sustained by our legacy, just as each of us is sustained by those whom we touched. My students are no exception. They will leave their legacy on Hillel, as they have helped to shape the organization and community it is and will remain. However, they have affected me more than they will ever know. I have learned so much from them, and I know that I will never forget them and my experiences at Hillel at Miami University. In Proverbs 3:18 it says, “It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it. And all of its supporters are happy.” I have planted my independence, watched it grow and bloom with every interaction I’ve had. I have watched the students grow and bloom. And I am happy.