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Morning Prayers

Good morning, everyone. It is wonderful to be here—in person—for Morning Prayers. I cannot imagine a better way to begin the academic year than in your company and in the company of our recently appointed Pusey Minister.

Welcome, Matt, to the first day of school in your new post. May all of your days to come be infused with wisdom and grace—and may you find joy and satisfaction in your work with this special community. We are deeply grateful for and excited by your leadership of Memorial Church.

The last eighteen months have given me ample time to think about our community. In the early days of the pandemic, I worried that being apart would erode our care and concern for each other. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth. Seeing how we have pulled together—all over the country and around the world—to support one another in our work and to fulfill our mission regardless of circumstances has been a constant source of inspiration. Early on, our alumni secured needed and scarce personal protective equipment and sent it to our hospitals. People donated generously to our Pandemic Relief Fund and helped to provide emergency financial assistance to members of our community. Belts were tightened and sacrifices were made to keep everyone on the payroll. I hope you feel—as I do—optimistic about our future, whatever it may bring, because of your experience as part of this special community during these most challenging times.

Now, as we begin a more familiar kind of academic year, I find myself wondering how we can bring the inclinations we have had over the last year-plus—to be generous, open, and understanding—to this space and to many other spaces across our campus that have stood empty for far too long. How can we ensure that the capacities we have expanded in the face of trauma persist and enrich the months and years to come? How can we demonstrate to our first-year students, who I welcomed yesterday at Convocation, that Harvard—a place that awes and intimidates the best of us—is ready to embrace them?

The world—it seems—is at odds with those ends. By now, we have all seen or heard a story or two—or more—about rude and abusive customers at restaurants driving staff to tears or forcing resignations and closures by behaving badly. We have all seen or heard a story or two—or witnessed ourselves—individuals refusing to wear masks, refusing to protect themselves and others, refusing to be responsible members of society. And those are just a few examples. There are, unfortunately, many more of a type of meanness and crudeness that seems to delight in the suffering of others.

My own faith teaches that we sanctify God when we treat others with kindness and respect. This applies, of course, to all of the big moments—the undeniable opportunities to help people in need of attention or assistance. But Judaism also puts special emphasis on the small moments—the everyday interactions that shape how people feel about one another and, in turn, how they feel about the capacity for goodness among all people. Offering an example, the Talmud actually places its readers in a busy butcher’s shop, where even the simple act of paying in a timely fashion reveals character, inspires others, and honors God.

Being a member of this community creates ceaseless opportunities to excel in small moments, to treat equally well all of the many people who come to Harvard to live and learn, to work and thrive. May we commit ourselves—this year of all years—to making our University a bit kinder, a bit gentler, a bit more generous, a bit more understanding. May Harvard be as humane as it is humbling. And may we all stay safe and well.

Thank you.