Graduation Speech 2008

Friends, Parents, Colleagues, Esteemed Guests, My Dear Students, the Class of 2008,

10 years ago this fall, as the Athletic Director of the New Jewish High School, I started my first sicha – discussion group as an alternative to traditional tefillah/prayer. With five brave souls (or at least five kids who would do anything not to go to tefillah), the very first thing I read with them was a passage from the famous essay by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” in which he describes the situation of the one whom he calls “Adam the Second” – the paradigm of a human being (or the part of the human being) that is lonely and insecure because he has a tragic awareness of the uniqueness of his situation in the world. Rav Soloveitchik asks a haunting question: “Who knows whether the first astronaut who will land on the moon, confronted with a strange, weird and grisly panorama, will feel a greater loneliness than Mr. X, moving along jubilantly with the crowd and exchanging greetings on New Year’s Eve at a public square?” Sometimes, this question implies to me, it is when we are in a community that we feel most lonely.

I remember the scene vividly. We sat in a circle and after I read this quote, there was a somewhat painful silence. Eventually, one of the students raised his hand: “This is stupid,” he said. “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. There is no way you can be lonely when you’re walking through Times Square on New Year’s Eve.” Suddenly another student responded: “Oh I know for a fact you can.” Somehow I hadn’t realized it, but the student who spoke was actually sitting outside our small, four person circle, on a desk in the corner. What a poignant and tragic image . . . sitting outside the circle. But we see it all the time, both literally and figuratively – on our first day at a new school, in the dining hall or the classroom, at a prayer service, on the school bus, at a dinner table in our own homes . . . sometimes it is others, and at some point in most of our lives, it has been us. Most of us have felt like the person who is profoundly aware of how different I am, how different my experience is from everyone else’s, the feeling that . . . these people just don’t get me.

Sometimes we actively keep people out of our communities, but more often we simply don’t realize the ways that people’s experiences are different from our own. This is the power of pluralism – the mandate to acknowledge and honor our differences, to engage rather than reject or ignore the other, and to find meaning and strength in our diversity. But to be honest, I have sometimes wondered if the notion of a pluralistic community is an oxymoron. After all, what usually defines a community is a group of people with a shared set of norms, practices, beliefs. How can these two coexist? Does not the very notion of a strong, committed community preclude the existence of significant diversity within it?

Watching your class prepare for graduation and create your siyyum by reflecting on your four years at Gann, it is clear that you have a great deal to teach us about community and pluralism, about how unity forms out of and coexists with diversity, and about how a group of people prepare themselves to stand together and to receive (in your case, today, your Gann diplomas).

Last week, you journeyed to the sacred space of Camp Young Judea, for a two-day retreat of work and play. Somehow, we expected that after weeks of independence – of working on projects, seminars, internships – and with your hearts and heads in so many different places, you would manage to achieve the level of cooperation, teamwork, and sustained focus necessary to create something new – the 63 of you, together. And somehow, we expect you to fashion a siyyum that fully captures your diversity, your creativity, your passion and your intellect that reflects the holistic four-year experience of the Class of 2008, while honoring the distinct experiences and perspectives of each and every one of you. And look what you’ve created! As I watched you up there and listed to your personal stories, your interpretations of Torah, your harmonies, and as I look out at you right now, I am reminded of another group of people who also prepared themselves to stand together, united and receive, in their case Torah at Mount Sinai.

And I ask myself, again: How does a community prepare itself for to stand together and receive? What makes a community ready for an encounter with the divine – to enter into a covenant with God?

In the vivid description of Ma’amad Har Sinai –of B’nei Yisrael’s experience at Mount Sinai, the Torah is also concerned with this question. With literary artistry, the Torah turns a simple description of B’nei Yisrael’s arrival at Sinai into a commentary on the existential/emotional/spiritual state of the People when they arrive. In Exodus 19:1-2 it says:

“Bachodesh Hashlishi l’tzeit b’nei Yisrael me’eretz Mizraim, bayom hazeh bau midbar Sinai. Vayis’u me’rephidim vayavo’u midbar Sinai, vayachanu bamidbar, vayichan sham neged hahar. In the third month, after the children of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on this day they came to the wilderness of Sinai.

For they had journeyed from Rephidim and they arrived at the wilderness of Sinai; and they encamped in the wilderness; and there (Israel) encamped next to the mountain.”

A careful reading of these two lines reveals several difficulties, including repetition and a lack of grammatical symmetry. – Twice it says they arrive at Midbar Sinai and twice it says that they encamped there. The first time it says vayachanu – they encamped, in the plural, and the second time it says, vayichan Sham –B’nei Yisrael encamped, in the singular.

Rashi quotes a midrash that pays attention to the literary nuances (as you’ve all learned to do!); he both resolves the difficulty and teaches us something about the state of the people when they arrived at Sinai: The second “encamped” is singular and the first plural to teach us that all of the encampments along the way (the journey from Egypt) had been in complaining and murmuring, makhloket/dispute, when they arrived at the wilderness of Sinai, they were “k’ish echad b’lev echad” – like one person with one heart.

I am always moved by the beauty of the Midrash’s description of the unity of B’nei Yisrael, by the image of the people standing united in a circle, around the mountain – one people, one heart. But I am struck by the sudden disappearance of makhloket, dispute. The unity is beautiful, but at what price? As Jews and especially as a pluralistic Jewish school, is not dispute and debate the hallmark of our Jewish intellectual tradition and a core value of a pluralistic educational philosophy?

And as for your class, our school, our community, the Jewish People, do we strive to outgrow or move beyond our differences? I don’t think so. On the contrary, our school is founded upon the conviction that we are better, stronger, wiser, because of our differences. A community that stands together because it ignores or smoothes over its differences is a community that stands together in hypocricy, not unity. It is a community that stands with a heart divided, rather than k’ish echad b’lev echad.

So how do we understand this concept of one people, one heart? To me, it cannot be unity at the expense of diversity. Perhaps something happened to B’nei Yisrael when they arrived at midbar Sinai, the wilderness. Something changed in the fabric of this society, the character of the community. There is something about the wilderness and the journey into the wilderness that opens us up to possibilities.

And perhaps, we can understand what happened to B’nei Yisrael from your experience last week, in your midbar, Camp Young Judea.

Something seemed to happen to your class during that experience – a transformation, dare I say, from complaining and dispute to k’ish echad b’lev echad. You opened up your hearts and made space for each other. You genuinely listened and because of this you invited people’s experiences and their souls into the conversation. You held the space – stayed in the wilderness long enough for your perception of your class and the story you tell about yourselves to change. You did not ignore your differences, your different experiences – you invited them into the room.

Last Thursday night you shared your reflections and your wisdom with your parents and your teachers; with your permission, I want to send you off by mirroring three of your comments back to you, with my Rashi – my interpretation, if you will. We have much to learn from you.

One of you said:

“I do theater and she does athletics, and they don’t separate us – I may not be best friends with everybody, but I feel I can have a conversation with everybody.”

My interpretation:

Different does not have to mean separate. Makhloket does not have to mean strife. Makhloket is a healthy when it is about engagement: And why do we engage each other because “Vayisu meriphidim – and they journeyed from Rephidim” we engage because we are on a shared journey, heading toward a shared destination. We are not necessarily best friends, and certainly not the same – yet we are in conversation with each other – that is what community is all about.

One of you said:

“Last year, when I was going through a really hard time . . . my friends were there for me. Though they didn’t understand what I was going through, they listened.”

My interpretation:

There is no more powerful way to bring someone into the circle than to ask a genuine question and to listen, just listen. It is not always about getting it and it is certainly not about responding, fixing or debating. True listening is how a community makes a person feel held and cared for, even when the person is profoundly lonely in her experience that no one can possibly understand right now. This kind of listening is at the heart of pluralism.

One of you said:

“This community has given me the courage to be the person I want to be”

My interpretation:

How do you give someone that courage? – Not by saying to him: “You can be like all of us; then we’ll like you and respect you.” Rather by saying to him: “We know you’re different. Why? Because we see you, we listen to you. We know you’re different and we love you not in spite of it but because of it. We won’t always agree with you and sometimes we’ll vigorously oppose you – but that too is a sign of our respect for who you really are.”

As you make your way through the world, you will encounter diversity and strife; cliques, factions, and, if you pay close enough attention, lonely individuals. You are graduating with the profound capacity – intellectual, emotional, spiritual – to alleviate loneliness, to invite people into your circle, to build community out of diversity.

As you stand here today, we hear not the monotone sound of hypocritical homogeneity, nor the dissonance of disinterest and disconnectedness, but rather the harmony of makhloket, the symphony of your unique souls speaking to each other openly and honestly – of their highs and their lows. This symphony is pluralism and it is community; you stand here today k’ish echad b’lev echad – and you are ready, “bayom hazeh – on this day” to receive your diplomas and begin the next phase of your journey. You are 63 unique individuals and you are the Class of 2008.

We love you. We will miss you.

Mazal tov.

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