Graduation Speech 2014

 

What an awesome and emotional day! 

My Dear Friends,  

This graduation is different for me, and I am grateful to all of you for your support and understanding. As most of you know, I just got up from Shiva, and I am now in sheloshim, the 30-day Jewish mourning period during which many people don’t shave and avoid public, social, celebratory gatherings.  

Today, I am striving to balance being here with you for this beautiful milestone and joyous day with the responsibility I feel to honor my father and our tradition. I did not march in to Pomp and Circumstance, and I am not sitting up here on the stage, but I am proud to have given you your diplomas and to share a few words with you. 

Talmidai hayekarim, my dear students, Class of 2014, you inspire me. You have inspired me today as you have for the past four years. Each of you has helped shaped our school and, together, you are leaving quite a legacy. You have founded non-profit organizations and clothing companies; you have started new publications and new minyanim, while continuing to strengthen the ones you inherited when you took over the mantle of student leadership over a year ago. Your artistic creativity abounds, from music, songwriting and theater, to poetry, dance, and design. You love to communicate in multiple languages including but not limited to Hebrew, Mandarin Chinese, and Code. You are athletes, and you are innovators, always willing to push boundaries and to explore new frontiers, already clear about many of the ways you want to make a difference in the world. Your many friend groups are distinct and strong, and, at the same time, you are supportive—really, deeply supportive—of each other’s passions and commitments. 

Your leadership and impact on our community have extended far beyond formal leadership roles and positions. You have been active and civically engaged, caring deeply about Israel and its role in your lives, as well as about the broader world. You helped to rebuild New Jersey in 20 degree weather. And, as committed as you are to repairing the world out there, you are equally committed to improving yourselves to the world in here. You are among the first students to participate in Chanoch L’na’ar and, because of your willingness to make yourselves vulnerable and to engage with Mussar, the Jewish ethical tradition, your growth as Jews and as people has strengthened the character and ethical foundation of our community.  

You are never afraid to contribute your strong, sophisticated, witty, edgy, humorous, sharply critical (in a loving way, of course) voices, in both speech and in writing, to the creation of a vibrant conversation about big ideas—a conversation that is a defining feature of your class and a defining aspiration of our school.  

And I can’t mention our aspiration to be a conversational community without giving a special acknowledgement to someone for whom this graduation is a particular milestone. Rabbi Danny Lehmann, the founder and visionary behind Gann Academy, has had at least one child in the school since he passed the mantle of leadership onto me seven years ago and, today, his youngest child, Shira, is graduating. Danny, you have been a friend and mentor to me since you gave me my first job at New Jew 16 years ago, and you have taught me and so many of us about the sacred work of building a pluralistic, conversational community. On behalf of all of us who are here today because of your vision, Danny and all of mishpachat Lehmann, we thank you.  

Class of 2014, you have a unique combination of passion and creativity, intellectual prowess, chutzpah and drive—a combination that makes it unlikely that anyone or anything will stand in your way. I think it is clear to all of us if we just look at where you all are heading next that nothing is standing in your way. You will be attending an extraordinary range of colleges and universities, including the most selective in the country as well as seven schools that no Gann alumni before you have attended, another testament to your willingness to chart new paths and explore new frontiers. Many of you will spend formative years in Israel and on other gap year programs next year, and I know that others of you will find other ways to spend meaningful time in Israel during and after college.  

My dear students, you have already achieved so much, and, for all of this, you should be so proud. However, none of this fully captures what I love and admire so much about you.  

What is really most extraordinary about you is that on top of all of these qualities and achievements, underneath all that intellect, talent, creativity, and drive, you are mensches with rock-solid values and hearts of gold.  

This past week was one of the hardest, most emotional weeks of my life. On Wednesday, so many of you, along with other Gann students, faculty, and staff, came to Brookline to sit with me in my living room. For those out there who are not aware of this, senior week has the potential to be one of the most self-centered weeks in high school students’ lives. Yet, during your senior week, a week that could have been all about you, you came to your Head of School’s house to sit with me, comfort me, to hold me up, to give me the sacred opportunity to share some of what I have learned from my father with you. For that mitzvah, that chesed, that act of loving kindness, my students, my friends, I will forever be grateful.  

Mostly, what I want to do today is just to be here with you and to say thank you. But, I also want to share one thing that I learned last week—an insight I had about relationships, Judaism, learning, and life that I hope you will to take with you as you graduate today.  

What was so extraordinary about shiva for me was that for seven days straight, minus Shabbat and a few hours for sleeping, I sat in that low chair, and I just talked. I know you might be thinking: how is that any different from what I do the rest of the time? Well, for these seven days, I talked about my father and his life. At first, I was reminiscing, trying to find moments, highlights, stories that might interest people. But, as the week went on, I realized that I wasn’t just talking. I was teaching. I was teaching because what I was actually doing was learning. I was learning and teaching and learning again the Torah of my father’s life. The same story would come out slightly differently the second time and then the third as I peeled back the layers of who he was and how he lived, mining them for values and lessons that could guide, direct, inspire me. In the process of remembering and telling my father’s story, his life has become a text for me, and, to be honest, until just this past week, I had not realized just how rich and full of meaning and relevance this text, this man was.  

And then I relearned the first Mishnah of Pirkei Avot, the Chapters of our Fathers, which contain the timeless, ethical wisdom teachings of our Rabbis.  I have probably read this Mishnah hundreds of times, but something struck me as I read it just a few days ago. “Moshe kibel Torah miSinai u’mesarah l’Yehoshua” – Moses received Torah from Mount Sinai u’mesarah, and passed it on to Yehoshua, who in turn passed it on to the Elders, who passed it on to the Prophets, and so on . . . all the way to the rabbis, all the way, I am sure this text wants us to understand, to us. Among the many significant questions we can ask about this foundational text is a question about the verb choice. Why doesn’t the Mishnah say that Moshe taught, limed, the Torah to Yehoshua? Why doesn’t it say that he gave, natan, the Torah to Yehoshua, does the text choose the verb masar, he passed the Torah to Yehoshua?  

What does this text want to teach us about the nature of transmission and tradition, the Hebrew for which is Mesorah or Mesoret—from that same root, Masar? What does it want to teach us about Judaism and education, about teaching and learning and life?  

As I studied that Mishnah just hours, maybe minutes, away from concluding an emotionally and spiritually exhausting and uplifting seven days, I reflected on the process of telling my father’s story, and this concept of mesorah and the process of transmission spoke to me in a new and profound way. Transmission is not a unidirectional process in which the teacher hands over information to a passive recipient. To me the best way to understand the power of this verb masar, to pass, is to think about it in the context of sports. So, if you’ll permit me a sports metaphor: think about football or basketball or lacrosse. In order for a pass to be successful, the ball needs to be passed, and it needs to be received, to be caught. Someone who is open, ready, and able to receive the ball needs to be waiting for it.  Great players want the ball. They call for it. They find ways to get open and stay open even before the ball has been passed, and they are ready to receive that pass at any time. 

Well, the same is true for learning, whether in the classroom from a teacher, from the wisdom of our Jewish tradition, or from the lives of our parents, all of which are our mesorah. You have to want the ball. 

As much as I loved and admired him, I don’t think I ever thought of my father as a fountain of wisdom. What I learned last week was that, in fact, my father’s life was a book waiting to be opened, read, unpacked, interpreted, and read again. The meaning is in there, the ball is in the air. It is I who have to be ready to receive it. 

This is a humbling challenge and an awesome opportunity for all of us and, especially, to you and me, the next generation.  

Five chapters later in Pirkei Avot, Ben Bag Bag teaches us “hafoch ba hafoch ba d’kula ba – Turn it, Turn it, delve into it, and delve into it, for everything is contained within it . . .” He is talking about Torah and the wisdom of our Jewish tradition, but Ben Bag Bag is also talking about an approach to learning and a stance toward life, toward the world, and toward other people. Hafoch ba, hafoch ba is stance of being a turner, a miner for meaning, a close reader; it is a stance of openness and trust that if I look carefully and deeply enough, everything that I need to learn is already in there—whether in the laws of the physical world, great works of literature, the texts of our Jewish tradition, or the lives of the people around us.  

Graduates, I want you to remember that this stance toward the world is a tikkun, a corrective, a repair, a counterbalance—it is a tikkun for the shallow lens through which we often look at Judaism, at our studies, at other people—a lens of prejudgment, of assuming that someone or something has nothing new to teach us; perhaps, because it is irrelevant; or, perhaps, because it is beneath us; perhaps, because we’re too smart; or; perhaps, because we have seen this all before.  It is also tikkun for the intellectual arrogance and competitiveness that defines so much of our academic culture— an overemphasis on critique and deconstruction in the name of tearing down rather than open and compassionate inquiry in the name of drawing out and lifting up, in the name of making everything and everyone we encounter our teachers.  

To be a receiver is actually to be a creator. It is to be able and willing to, in the words of the late theologian Nelle Morton, hear another into speech. My talmidim, you have the power and the responsibility to use your heads and your hearts to hafoch ba, hafoch ba, to make others your teachers, and to find the Torah all around you that is just waiting to be seen, heard, uncovered by you. This is what it means to be a receiver and a transmitter of mesorah.   

Graduates, may your chutzpah be tempered by humility and your drive by ethical sensibility and inclusivity. May you integrate critical thinking and deconstruction with curiosity, compassion, and meaning making; may your passion and creativity continue to be the fuel that propels you through the world and the light that lights the way for others as you have for us over these past four years. And may you continue to play your part in the sacred process of mesorah, of transmission, of Torah, wisdom, values, meaning, of a life well lived.  

Class of 2014, I know that you are well on your way.  

We love you, and we will miss you.  

Mazal tov. 

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