Friends, Parents, Colleagues, My Dear Students, the Class of 2006,
Last week I had a life-changing experience, or at least an experience that caused me to step back and reexamine my life. As some of you know, I am blessed to have a father-in-law who is a real, live, tzaddik – a man who has devoted his life to fighting for the rights and the well-being of women, children and the sick all over the world. I wish all of you the privilege of knowing a person who has made such a huge impact on the world and who is loved by so many people around the world not only for his work, but for who he is. Last week my father-in-law was honored for his legacy of leadership with a dinner and a Global Health Symposium in his honor.
You might wonder what a Global Health Symposium is. Essentially, it is a public discussion between leaders and experts from around the world about how they are trying – and in many cases, albeit slowly, succeeding – to solve the problems of the world. I sat inspired and in awe of the clarity with which the speakers and my father-in-law devote themselves to their work and their mission. But I have to admit that I then began to question myself, to question my work, and even to question my life.
I asked myself: What am I doing teaching in a small, suburban Jewish high school while women throughout the world still live under the violent oppression of men? To put it even more bluntly, what is the significance of a high school graduation ceremony when there are 13 million AIDS orphans in Africa? Yes, I am finally asking myself the question that I know most of you have asked at some point during the past four years, some of you no doubt during my classes: What is the point of this? What difference does high school make in your lives or anyone’s lives for that matter?
And as for me personally, should I be devoting my time and energy to more global world crises like hunger or AIDS? Why have I devoted my life to high school education?
Well, as I tumbled further and further into this existential crisis, the first thing I did was crumple up my original speech for today. It somehow just doesn’t feel right to take you on a stroll down memory lane with the meaning of my life weighing so heavily on my mind. Instead, I need to talk to you about these questions, because these questions, which actually can make me pretty uncomfortable, crack open my neshama, my soul, and force me to do teshuva – from the word lashuv, to return. They force me to return to myself, to my principles, and to my vision for my life and my career.
If I could not answer these questions, I’m not sure I would be able to speak right now, and I’m not even sure I would continue to teach next year. So, for the next couple of minutes, let me give you some insight into what drives me as a rabbi and a high school educator, what motivates me to teach you, day after day, and for me, what the purpose of your Jewish high school education has been.
My answer boils down to three things: My neshama – my soul, your neshamot – your souls, and the world.
First, my neshama. I love what I do. I thank God every day that I actually get paid, albeit not a lot, to do something lights my soul on fire, and I pray that each of you relentlessly searches for your calling, and that you one day experience how deeply fulfilling it is to find it and to know: this is what I was put on earth to do. I love my work and I love my students. I love learning with you, talking with you, arguing with you, playing basketball against you, singing with you, laughing with you, crying with you, dreaming with you. I love watching how much you change and grow, from clueless post-middle-schoolers into responsible – okay, semi-responsible – young adults. I love holding you accountable for behavior that I know, and most of the time you know, is not okay. And I love how proud I am of you when you shine like the incredible human beings I know you can be.
Which brings me to my second point: your neshamot. I actually believe that each of you is created b’tzelem elohim, in the Image of God, and when I look at you I can’t help but see your infinite potential. Rav Kook writes that the soul is always singing, like water flowing from a spring, but we often do not hear it because of all the rocks blocking the water’s flow. Well, high school – these four years of tumultuous adolescence – is filled with rocks: physical, intellectual, social and spiritual. Stress, grades, social pressure, loneliness, changing relationships with parents and teachers, trying to figure out who you are . . . let alone, for some of you, real and painful loss. I know how hard it can be to hear that song.
But I come to school every day and walk through the hallways with a glow on my face because although it may not always be easy for you, I hear your souls singing, all the time. Watching you and interacting with you in the hallways or the classroom, on Shabbat or on the basketball court, I hear a symphony. And what gets me out of bed every morning is the hope that I can remove even one of those rocks from even one of you, and perhaps in some small way help you to actualize your amazing potential.
The mystic in me believes that if I do this for even one student, I have repaired an entire world.
But my mission doesn’t stop here, and Weber’s mission doesn’t stop here, because it’s just not enough for my soul and your souls to be on fire, while so many people around the world live in such suffering. And this brings me to answer number three. We all know that Weber prepares you to become knowledgeable, thinking, responsible Jewish adults. But let’s get right down to it: what does this mean for the world? So let me give offer you a peirush – a simple interpretation – of this mission:
To Inspire and Empower You To make your world a better place. This is why I pour out my heart and soul every day: To inspire and empower you to make your world a better place.
Now, I could stop here and this would be a classic, ra ra, the-Class-of-2006-can-change-the-world speech. But is not an abstract dream or a feel good send off. Tikkun Olam – mending or repairing the world – is not just one aspect of Judaism: I keep kosher, I light candles, I do Tikkun Olam. It’s not just an item on your resume, a hobby, an interest, a nice thing to do. It is the reason we were put on this earth, it is the purpose of our school, and the purpose of my life as a teacher. It is what we are sending you out into the world to do.
When I look back on my own high school graduation and around at many American high school seniors, I think that graduation has come to be about freedom. After 12 years in the rat race, without much choice or control over your daily life – at least not in school – graduation and college represent freedom from expectations and a world of choice. Next year, your time will be fully your own, with the exception of a few hours of classes. No parents will be around to nag you, and no teachers to get you to class. No required Tikkun Olam days. Most of you won’t even have to hand in homework on a regular basis. Many of your college classmates will bask in their newfound freedoms and some will drown in their sea of choice.
But, as far as my mission and I think Weber’s mission is concerned, Class of 2006, today you do not just gain freedom and choice. This ceremony is not a just a graduation and it is not just a completion. It is a rite of passage, and it is a coming of age. Today, you become b’nei mitzvah. You become children, young adults, who are obligated and responsible to fulfill at least one mitzvah, at least one commandment, and that is our school’s mission: to make the world a better place.
This is a different paradigm of what graduation is all about. It has been an incredible four years and you should look back on them with pride. But, Class of 2006, while your twelve years of mandatory schooling might be over when you throw those caps in the air, your purpose in life, and my mission as a teacher, is just beginning.
My dear students, thank you for the immense joy and fulfillment you have brought me over the past four years. In many ways I feel like we have grown up together. I love you, and I believe in you. May your lives be filled with freedom and choice, infused with a profound sense of purpose and responsibility. May you actualize your potential, and may you find your own unique ways of making our world even a little bit better place.
Mazal tov and b’hatzlachah