May 16, 2011
By C. L. Max Nikias

To receive this honor from this institution is one of the most personally rewarding moments in my career.

I am grateful to Rabbi Ellenson, Dean Holo and Stanley Gold, as well as the entire faculty of HUC.

On behalf of USC, I thank you as a partner, and I thank you as a friend. This unprecedented partnership of a great Jewish seminary and a great research university has been of extraordinary benefit to USC—to our academic community and to the entire, worldwide Trojan Family.

Graduates, I congratulate you on this adventure that you have completed with distinction and honor!

Or perhaps I should be more honest and congratulate you on closing one crucial chapter within your ongoing adventure.

You have committed yourself to the adventure of learning, but that adventure continues through the decades, and it ends only with our last breath.

Always remember: Learning is even, in the freshness of its youth, for the old.

I know you have learned much here, at one of the world’s greatest centers for religious education and training, here within a religious tradition that places learning as its unshakable foundation.

At this great institution, your mind and your conscience have been fed and energized by the discussion of the most timeless truths of the human experiment.

But in the grand tradition of Jewish scholarship and inquiry, this lively discussion is renewed each new morning, through the years with each new day bringing deeper insight into timeless truths, and with each truth leading to timely advances for ourselves and our children.

This represents the very heart of our democratic experiment.

I have a special confidence in you and the contribution each of you will make in our own world.

Though many of you will find yourselves in different areas of service, and though these areas may change for each of you many times over the years, all of you will be builders of character, within your community and the larger world.

And I cannot think of a more magnificent contribution that you, or anyone, could make.

Character is destiny, it has been said. This is certainly a notion that Jewish thinkers have wrestled with throughout history, as cases of complexity have been examined by the writers of Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job and so many others.

And yet we all resonate with this notion because we know it contains a profound truth.

What does character look like for us here today?

Most human beings are naturally ambitious. From our birth, we seek recognition, and we seek ways to earn it.

Consider, too, that we inhabit a time and a culture that promote ambition—the ambition to make our voices heard, the ambition to be famous, the ambition to make a name for ourselves.

And there may never have been a wider gulf between celebrity and accomplishment than in our own time.

Fame may have nothing to do with character—and indeed lack of character oftentimes leads to great fame today.

And yet such fame does not long endure. What endures is character, and the name that character creates.

Most bright and talented persons today stand ready and eager to lead, sometimes too eager.

I suspect that we today can gain much from considering deeply the story of Jacob, one who demanded the right to lead, and who was willing to seize that right from his own brother.

Jacob represents perhaps the most human of heroes, one whose ultimate mission resonates within our flesh and our bones.

There is much in his story that brings an embarrassed mixture of reactions on our part: He is shrewd and he is cunning, and he manipulates circumstances to advance his own cause.

It flies in the face of all that we have been taught about the virtue of humility.

Moses was the modest and reluctant leader—but Jacob is audaciously ambitious. Jacob demands a blessing—and fully expects to receive it.

And yet Jacob’s greatest ambition ultimately is to make the right manner of impact on the world. And that gives Destiny something it can work with.

Yes, Jacob is jealous for responsibility, but it is only along the Grand Journey of life that Hashem teaches him the nature of the burden that he has been seeking.

It is here that character is forged wonderfully by the encounter of a person with the forces of life.

There is, above all, the breathtaking encounter between Jacob and the mysterious angel, the collision of Jacob’s ambition with destiny.

It is a struggle that tests Jacob’s courage and ambition.

It is a blazing furnace that refines that courage and ambition.

It is a wrestling match that brings proper perspective to his youthful courage and ambition.

It clarifies who he will be on the long road ahead.

And in that first, breaking light of dawn, Jacob receives the great blessing that he seeks, but only after it has been made clear to him that the blessing comes with a burden – that the prize comes with a sense of duty.

And at Peniel, he gains a new name, a new identity, a new destiny. He whose name once symbolized a reckless self-interest now carries a name, Israel, that announces a profound and eternal responsibility.

Leadership is indeed a matter of character, much as the ancient philosophers observed.

And character is developed chiefly in the crucibles that life presents to us, in the searing trials that test and perfect our hearts and our spirits.

It is through this mysterious process that even our flaws can be transformed and then woven into the wondrous fabric of fate.

Jacob’s destiny was an astonishing one. But it did not float gently into his lap.

He needed to pursue it, he needed to seize it, he needed to grasp it with his own hands, and he needed to wrestle with it through the long and dark night, before extracting that marvelous blessing.

And that blessing would be not merely for himself, but for a great people, for a great nation that would be a light to others.

Today, each of you is in a position to manifest the power of the Jacob story in your own lives: To struggle with life’s lessons, in community and with community.

The faith that you have served represents a grand and ancient communion. It is a perpetual dialogue into which all of humanity has been invited to think, and to wrestle, so that we all may gain insight and understanding and compassion.

There is no end—ever—to this passionate, ongoing discourse regarding what matters most in life.

There is no end to this discussion, which strengthens our minds and our spirits in the same way that the championship wrestler strengthens his body through competition.

Within the classical Greek tradition, it has been said that Socrates was the most Jewish character among the citizenry of Athenians. There was no simple “true or false” for him.

He demanded that he and his students wrestle with truth, beauty, law and religion; he was the rabbi who expected to be challenged. It was a most “Talmudic” of approaches.

And his most famous pupil, Plato, was an accomplished wrestler in the gymnasium; his very name referred to his wrestling skill, and he brought that skill to the life of the intellect and spirit.

Let us cherish this unending struggle for truth, which the Jewish tradition has infused wonderfully into our world, as each of us comes to understand who we are, as human beings in society, and as persons with a timeless heritage that offers something timely today and tomorrow.

May you be bold in your struggle for perspective and for hope and for truth.

May you be tireless and resilient in working alongside others in the service of Tikkun olam as you strengthen and heal a broken world that desperately needs your contribution.

And may you all seize the mighty destiny that awaits you, as Jacob did, and always have Jacob in your minds!

Thank you, and congratulations!