Graduation Speech 2010
By Rabbi Marc Baker, Head of School
Friends, parents, grandparents and family members, colleagues, esteemed guests, my dear students, the Class of 2010,
In one of the editorials from yesterday’s New York Times, the writer discussed a phenomenon that so few Americans know their neighbors by name. While he certainly did not blame or vilify the internet and social networking (he, himself, has thousands of friends and followers on various social networking sites), he cited research indicating that online social networks are “rewiring our relationships and that our keyboard communities are affecting the attachments in our actual ones.”
One of the statistics he cited, which, I think, is particularly relevant for our graduates, was from a May study by researchers at the University of Michigan, which found that college kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago. This research suggested that one reason might be that the ease of having friends online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don’t feel like responding to others’ problems, a behavior that could carry over offline.
Now, I certainly do not want to spend today preaching to you, a generation of digital natives, about the interpersonal and societal risks of social networking and how much time we all spend in our digital worlds. To be honest, I think it would even be hypocritical, given my attachment to my Blackberry, a compulsion that I suspect many of us can relate to!
I don’t how one goes about measuring empathy, let alone comparing college students to their counterparts of 20-30 years ago, and I do not mean to start a debate about statistics or social science.
What I do know, however, is that the idea of our graduates entering a world where empathy is on the decline concerns me a great deal.
So I want to spend the next few minutes talking with you about empathy – about how I think it relates to yesterday’s Torah portion, the well-known story of Korach’s rebellion, about why it is essential to our vision of pluralism and the values with which we hope you leave Gann, and about why you need it to do the important work of repairing and transforming our world.
The story of Korach in Bemidbar (Numbers) 16 is an incredible tale about community, rebellion, and leadership in the face of challenge. Korach, a descendent of Levi, takes Datan v’Aviram, two descendents of Reuven, and mobilizes 250 other important leaders among the Israelites to rise up against Moshe and Aharon and to challenge to their leadership, essentially an attempted coup.
Now, Korach is vilified both by the Biblical text and the Rabbinic tradition that followed. He and his followers are, ultimately, swallowed up by the earth in a swift response by God to quell their rebellion. And, in a famous Mishnah in Pirkei Avot 5:17, Korach’s dispute with Moshe is the example of what the Rabbis call a Makhloket shelo l’shem Shamayim – a dispute that is not for the sake of heaven and, therefore, will not in the end endure. This is in contrast to the celebrated “Makhloket l’shem shamayim” – “dispute for the sake of heaven” of Hillel and Shammai – which will endure forever. Our tradition clearly values the notion of positive, constructive, principled makhloket (debate or dispute), and it frowns on this other less positive form of makhloket, of which Korach is the paradigm.
But here’s the thing. If we temporarily put aside the Rabbis’ reading of Korach, and we read the Biblical text closely and through our own eyes, as we have taught you, our graduates, to do, it is not immediately clear what is so wrong about their complaints against Moshe and Aharon. In fact, especially looking through the eyes of a high school student, one could even see Korah and his followers as heroic—they exercise free speech; they challenge authority and question the status quo; they are not afraid to speak their minds . . . to anyone!
And, the substance of their claims against Moshe and Aharon are reasonable and even compelling.
Their first claim: Kol ha’edah kulanu kedoshim – we’re all holy – we all want to be close to God; God is in each of us; so why is it fair or right for there to be a spiritual hierarchy and for you to be at the top?
And their second claim: You promised to bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey and, instead, we are going to die here in this wilderness, and, on top of that, you are now going to rule over us!
On the surface, both of these claims have merit. Shouldn’t we speak out when we believe that someone is spiritually misguided, that a leader is ineffective or is exerting inappropriate power over us?
So, what is it about Korach and his followers’ makhloket that causes Moshe, God, and our tradition to react so strongly? What makes this makhloket the paradigm of “lo l’shem shamayim?” If we read the text closely, there are several hints that Korach and his followers are motivated by self-interest and ego and are simply jealous of Moshe and Aharon. And I think this is the simplest reading of a Makhloket sheloleshem shamayim: their dispute is not really based on values or higher principles or the best interest of the community – it is based on ego and self-interest. Thus, despite what might be the legitimate substance of their claim, it is the motivation behind the makhloket that defines its legitimacy and its worth.
But I would like to suggest a slightly different reading. Perhaps, what is most problematic about this dispute is not what they say, nor is it why they say it (because we can never really know what motivates people). To me, what is most problematic is HOW they complain against Moshe and Aharon. Moshe sends for Datan and Aviram, Korach’s partners. Moshe, apparently, wants to meet with them, discuss this with them, and, perhaps, even hear them out. And their response: “Lo Naaleh” – we will not come up to see you. They proceed then to demean and accuse Moshe and Aharon. And then, again, “Lo Naaleh.”
We will not meet with you, we will not speak directly with you, we will not listen to you, and we will not engage you. Lo Naaleh. We will judge you, we will mobilize others against you, and we will seek to overthrow you. But Lo Naaleh, we will not come up to see you – face to face. We do not really want to be in a relationship with you. Positive makhloket requires two views, two competing values; it requires listening to and engaging the other in order to challenge him or her constructively. I want to suggest that the problem with this makhloket she lo leshem shamayim – this dispute not for the sake of heaven – is actually a problem of interpersonal ethics, which stems from a lack of empathy.
The unwillingness to engage, to listen, to seek to understand before judging and condemning can be dehumanizing; jumping to negative conclusions based on suspicion and lack of trust does not honor the dignity of the other, and it does not honor the divine image in which the other was created. This kind of argument is lo
leshem shamayim – not for the sake of heaven, because it is not for the sake of the dignity and growth of the person on the other side of the argument.
This challenge—of how to engage the other in a makhloket that is positive and constructive—is one of the reasons why our school exists and why pluralism is at the heart of our Jewish and educational mission. Pluralism is about an exchange of ideas and about pursuit of truth; it is about challenging each other and ourselves to examine our values, principles, and truth claims; and it is about strengthening our beliefs and our convictions through living and learning in community with people who are different from us.
And pluralism requires empathy. It is not only an intellectual exercise; it is a profoundly interpersonal process. Pluralism not only challenges us to think about WHAT we believe and WHY we believe it, but it also calls on us to think critically and carefully about HOW we express what we believe, especially when our self-expression takes the form of Makhkloket – of challenging others, whether our leaders, our teachers, our parents, colleagues, or friends. It is often the WAY we communicate that shapes the culture and character of a community.
My dear students, you are graduating today with confidence and conviction. I hope you are leaving with as many questions as you have answers and with humility about your beliefs. But I also know that you think critically and feel passionately, that you are not afraid to voice your opinions, and that you are able to do so articulately – whether in the school newspaper, in a Limmud Clali, or in our closing circle. You are not afraid to challenge authority, whether that authority is a Harvard professor or your Head of School (although I’m sure not your parents). You have the knowledge and the skills to stand for what you believe in, to defend your principles, and to fight for what you know is
important. For all of this we have confidence in you, and we are proud of you.
But I hope you will also heed what I view as one of the most important lessons we can learn from Korach and his followers: conviction without compassion can be a dangerous thing; the WAY you choose to use your intellectual power, your passion, and your leadership skills – how you respond to people who believe differently than you, who frustrate you, who you think are wrong or don’t get it – the kind of Makhloket you choose to create – can be either constructive or destructive. You have the power to say, unlike Datan and Aviram, Aloh Naaleh – surely we will come up, and, in doing so, we will elevate the humanity of those around us by engaging them, by listening to them, by striving to understand them, by challenging them, and even, when appropriate, by lovingly rebuking them. This will require the skills of empathy and understanding, of listening and patience, and of putting as much thought and care into how you speak as you do into what you say.
Our relationships are at the heart of a makhloket that is l’shem shamayim, for when we are able to challenge, debate, and disagree while staying in relationship with each other, then we are able to elevate and to transform each other and ourselves.
Class of 2010, it was a pleasure to watch you up here a few minutes ago and to see just how strong your relationships with each other are. And it has been a privilege to spend these last four years with you – watching you learn and grow into the passionate, intellectual, empathic Jews and human beings that you have become.
Thank you for leaving your mark on our community.
May your lives be filled with makhlokot leshem shamayim, with learning and growth, success and much happiness.
We love you, and we will miss you.