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The Big Day

The Big Day

My brother was the little train no one thought could. Did he ever prove everyone wrong.


Extreme sleep deprivation can cause people to turn into emotional wash buckets. But I don't think that's why I found myself crying as I watched my brother walking down the aisle in his graduation processional. I may have just spent the entire night driving from Detroit to NYC to be there for the ceremony, but there was so much more to the overwhelming emotions flooding me at that moment. I was watching my little brother bedecked in his gown, six-sided velvet doctoral tam perched on his head, colorful hood draped over his right arm, beaming with pride and joy as he headed to the place of honor he so deserved.

Josh was the little train that no one thought could. Josh had metamorphosed from a boy who couldn't last a week in elementary school without getting suspended to a man who embraced challenge after challenge, completing one of the most rigorous academic marathons in an accelerated program. In six short years, he transformed himself from someone who didn't have a GED, to one who has a Doctor of Jurisprudence from a Top 50 Law School. So when he turned to the box seats his family occupied, and waved exuberantly at his biggest fans, all I could do was assume a ramrod straight military posture and give him a teary-eyed full salute.

I thought of Josh living for five years in the mystical city of Safed. Not really attending school, he was a free spirit, playing guitar on the mountaintops at sunrise, and sunset, and doing all the other "stuff" that come along with that lifestyle. Many thought he was a lost cause, destined to sell hookahs to tourists, peddle homegrown herbal remedies, or find some other dead end job. And to prove them right, he had a string of dead end jobs for years.

But I also remember the day he resolved to never allow his lack of education to define the rest of his life. With the unwavering support of his wife Karen, a woman who always saw more in him than anyone else, he enrolled in a GED program with people many years his junior, and began the journey that brought him to Lincoln Center on this fine Monday morning. It was a journey that wound its way through sleepless nights, thousands of library hours, super-gluing himself to his chair, and more coffee than Columbia produces in a year. But Josh took it with superhuman effort and focus. Today was his day, and we were going to enjoy it to the max, whooping loudly as they called his name, inviting him to the stage to receive his hard-earned diploma

The best part of the day was yet to come. After the ceremony ended, most of the family went back to the house to prepare the graduation party/BBQ, while Josh and I went on a special mission. Josh has a father-in-law without whom there wouldn't be a Doctor of Jurisprudence. This man patiently taught him to write an APA paper, tutored him in math for his GED, and showed him how to effectively research a topic. For many years he opened his Manhattan home to Josh, who would often stay in the city so that he could get more schoolwork done instead of taking the hour and a half commute back and forth from his house. He would cook Josh hot meals, set up his bed, and treat him like his son.

Josh's father-in-law wasn't able to make it to the graduation ceremony; he was at work at his busy dentistry practice just a few miles from Lincoln Center. But that didn't mean that Josh couldn't bring the graduation to his father-in-law. Still dressed in his cap and gown, we stopped in a midtown mini-mart to get a bouquet of flowers. Then Josh surprised his father-in-law, giving him flowers and a copy of the ceremony program with a beautiful note in it. He eloquently and effusively thanked him for making his graduation possible.

His father-in-law was enormously appreciative, expressing his gratitude for the gesture at the party later that day. As the festivities died down, Josh told me that "the whole day was not really complete until we went to say thank you. It made a great day that much sweeter."


We can embrace life and struggle mightily to recreate ourselves.


During the long drive back home, two things struck me about the days events. The first was the recognition of our ability to completely redefine ourselves at any point in our lives. So often we take a habit, character trait, or weakness we have and write it off as "it's just the way I am!" I'm not a morning person. I don't have time for learning Torah. I'm not good with kids. I love gossip. I'm fat.

But we don't have to accept those premises as reality. We have complete control over those choices, and we can create the person we want to be. God says it best: "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life!" (Deut. 30:19) We can embrace life and struggle mightily to recreate ourselves and become a different person than we were last year, the year before, and the year before that.

The second idea that hit me was that life is enjoyed so much more when we are grateful. The more we show appreciation, the more we expand our circle of experience to include others, which creates an even greater joy.

I may not have a doctorate in jurisprudence, but my brother taught me how prudent it is to judiciously create new realities for myself, and how joyous it is to live life with constant gratitude. I rest my case.

June 13, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 14

(14) Melanie Vliet, March 25, 2012 4:15 PM

I Know How You Feel!

On May 15, 2011, my son received his JD, and I cried. His path to the degree was very different from that of your brother, but somehow similar. He was only 23 and had been a full-time student since beginning Kindergarten at the age of four, so he had never squandered a chunk of his life. However, in elementary school he had no interest in excelling academicallly or even in doing schoolwork at all. His attitude changed in middle school. Writing a report on Woodrow Wilson inspired him to become an elected politician. Having his best friend in all his classes one semester inspired him to compete for better grades than his friend got, and he discovered that with effort he could succeed academically. He stopped devoting his time to skateboarding and took all the hardest courses he could, adding speech and debate to his full course load, throughout high school. He graduated with a 4.26 GPA and numerous honors and went on to UC Berkeley, the top public university on the planet, as he had set as his goal at the age of thirteen. He finished his BA in only three years because of his high school advanced placement credit and entered UC Hastings College of the Law. Now, at age 24, he has passed the California Bar (the most difficult in the country) and is a successful personal injury attorney enjoying the fact that he is helping people at an excellent and established firm. When I cried as he received his JD, it wasn't only because he had turned his life around as an adolescent. It was because I was blessed to be there to see this momentous occasion. G-d had brought me through cancer when my son was 9 and again when he was 18. That first time was terrifying. I didn't know if I would live to see him graduate from elementary school. Yet there I still was, five graduations later, witnessing this pinnacle of his success. Set your sights high and follow them up. I had to interrupt my studying for my own final exam to attend that commencement ceremony. I am in law school myself.

(13) Anonymous, July 16, 2009 9:10 PM

2 things

Mazel tov to your brother! What an accomplishment! I hope he thanked his wife. While it was very nice of him to go to his father-in-law to thank him personally, unless there were an emergency, his father-in-law should have attended the ceremony. Good wishes to you all for much bracha v'hatzlachah!

(12) chava, June 28, 2009 6:13 PM

There are many paths to goodness

Mazal Tov to Baruch and all those who helped him succeed in his dream. BUT -- I'm probably the only one who read this article and became more and more angry. Is there something inherently wrong or evil even in having a "dead-end job" and living a life without a higher education? HaShem gave each of us gifts, but there are usually several ways to use these gifts. You can be proud of what your brother has done, but if he had chosen a different path, wouldn't you also be proud of him and love him?

(11) Celia Leal, June 19, 2009 3:43 PM

The Big Day

Dear Rabbi Burnham, I was very moved by your article on Boruch. It is impressive how a person can achieve a high level of accomplishment if somene believes in him or helps him to grow and prosper. I read your Biography after the article and I am also inspired with your former work with High Shcool learning disabled kids. I also have a son who has a disability and would very much appreciate him to find a school where people like you are teaching and hel them find their path and meaning in life. Thank you so much for your inspiring Ministry and this article. Shabbat Shalom!

(10) Malka Koretzky, June 19, 2009 2:18 PM

Yes we can

What a moving article about the power of change! May we all find the courage to redefine ourselves towards greatness.

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