Graduation Speech 2015 – Heart Leaders

Gann Academy Graduation 2015 
Graduation Speech by Rabbi Marc Baker 
June 14, 2015 

Friends, parents, grandparents, family members, colleagues, esteemed guests, my dear students, 

I’ve been thinking about why the Class of 2015 tugs at my heart strings so much. Your intellects are powerful and your talents vast, your contributions to Gann have been many, and your legacy will be felt for years to come. But what is it that moved me so deeply when you played the song from Boyhood Thursday night as we huddled in the Beit Midrash—parents, grandparents, teachers, and you—arm and arm with one another?  

And then I recalled a talk that Rabbi Shai Held recently gave in which he made a provocative claim: “Everyone is talking about thought leaders these days, he said. But the Jewish community and the world do not need more thought leaders, we need more heart leaders. Judaism,” he added, “asks us both to care deeply and to act concretely to help ameliorate suffering.” 

I think this term, Heart Leader, captures beautifully the people you are and the legacy you are leaving at Gann. So I’d like to take a few minutes to unpack it in light of what I see as three defining features of your class: compassion, creativity, and activism. How do these three relate to one another, and why are they essential to being a heart leader?  

One of your teachers recently said to me about your class, “In addition to all of their amazing talents and accomplishments, this is a NICE class.” Now, nice can mean that you are polite, that you don’t challenge one another, that you don’t say hard things, that you always get along, that you avoid conflict, but I suspect that you and your families will agree that this isn’t the nice she was talking about. No, I think she was observing something deeper—a desire to see one another, to support one another, to empathize with one another. She was describing what the Jewish mussar tradition would call the middah—the character trait, the inner quality—of chesed, compassion.  

I know some of you have heard this story before, but I’m going to tell it again, because it is one of my most poignant memories of this year.  The day after the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, your Student Body president invited anyone who wanted to process the events to join him in the Beit Midrash during lunch. I was a bit worried that no one would show up, so I went to the Beit Midrash to show my support. When I arrived two minutes late, there were over 60 students, including so many of you as leaders and role models, sitting in a huge circle. The thoughts and feelings you shared that day blew me away. You asked questions about the case with humility, rather than leaping to overconfident judgments about details you simply did not know. At the same time, your empathy—your willingness to, or perhaps your inability not to walk in the shoes of those less fortunate than you—was astounding. Your tears that day bore witness to what I see as a defining feature of your class: You see and you feel, so deeply, the brokenness of the world. 

With this middah of compassion and your capacities to see and to feel, you are walking in the spiritual footsteps of our forefather Avraham. In an effort to explain why Avraham merited his initial calling, our rabbis compare him to a person who was traveling from place to place.  The person saw a tower in flames and wondered,  

“Is it possible that this tower is without someone to look after it? At that moment, the owner of the tower peered out at him and said, “I am the owner of the tower.” So, too, the midrash goes, Avraham looked at our world, our imperfect world, and wondered, is it possible that this world should be without someone to look after it? Only then did God appear to him and say, “I am the owner of this world.” Lech Lecha . . . Go forth . . . You will be the father of my nation.  

How many other people walked past that burning tower without saying a word? How people avert their eyes or simply do not see the brokenness and suffering around them? What made Avraham unique and what earned him the calling from God was his ability, or his willingness, to see, to feel, and to cry out. I can picture the tears and righteous indignation with which Avraham asked his question: “Who is in charge here?” This is exactly what God was waiting for: a partner who would have enough compassion to see, feel, and respond to God’s unfinished world.  

Hundreds of years later a similar scene occurs, but this time not with a tower, but rather with a burning bush. Moshe, too, wanders through the wilderness, and he too looks carefully enough to see: “hasneh boer baesh vhasneh eineinu ukal – the bush was aflame but was not being consumed”.  Moshe turned off his path to look even more closely and only then, the Torah tells us, does God speak to him. And thus set in motion the story of our redemption. How many other people walked past that burning bush without noticing its miraculous nature? Once again, God was waiting for the one who would see the burning bush just as he saw the suffering of his brothers and sisters at the hands of the Egyptian taskmasters.   

Both of these stories teach us that God is waiting for people, for heart leaders, who have the compassion to see and to feel the suffering of others and the world. God is waiting for you, Class of 2015.  

When you have the spiritual and emotional capacity to know, with every fiber of our being, that the world as it is is far from the world as we know it can and should be, you feel what Parker Palmer calls the “tragic gap.” Many people, Parker observes, flip out on either side of that gap—on the side of irrelevant optimism (everything will be fine) or on the side of corrosive cynicism (there’s nothing we or anyone can do). Heart leaders, however, have the patience and compassion to live, work, and lead in that gap. Staying present, positive, and hopeful are necessary if you’re going to do the sacred work of repairing our world. It can be much easier to be naively optimistic or popularly cynical, but both of those character traits take you out of the game of leadership. They’re also not that fun to be around! Instead, you must have heart to stay in the gap long enough to help close it.  

Graduates, so many of you wrote in your paragraphs about taking risks and going outside of your comfort zones in order to find your voices, about discovering who you are and learning to be true to yourselves even when the world wants you to be someone else. I hope this sense of self brings you pride and joy as you celebrate this milestone today. And it is precisely this sense of self that also will give you the courage and strength to face challenges that lie ahead.  

I wish I could tell you that you won’t have to face any challenges or heartbreak, but I think Parker Palmer captures the reality of life and leadership with beautiful honesty when he writes the following: 

“If you hold your knowledge of self and world wholeheartedly, your heart will at times get broken by loss, failure, defeat, betrayal . . . What happens next in you and the world around you depends on how your heart breaks. If it breaks apart into a thousand pieces, the result may be anger, depression and disengagement. If it breaks open into greater capacity to hold the complexities and contradictions of human experience, the result may be new life (and I would add creativity, activism and hope). . . Politics in the hands of those whose hearts have been broken open, not apart, helps us hold our differences creatively and use our power courageously for the sake of a more equitable, just and compassionate world.”  

Dr. Jonathan Golden once described your class to me and said: “When I think about this class, I almost feel like the 60’s are still alive.” Instead of resorting to cynicism (except on occasion), you’ve written poetry and journalism, you’ve learned new instruments and written code, you’ve philosophized and you’ve added your voices to Talmudic conversations, you’ve built go-carts and formed birds out of recycled wrappers. It’s no coincidence that the Red Curtain Drama Club put on the musical Spelling Bee—an expose on adolescent life and Race to Nowhere Culture that addresses such serious topics with honesty, humor, and hope—during your senior year. Graduates, I believe that it is your very compassion and the moments when your hearts have broken open, not into pieces, that have fueled your extraordinary creativity and your activism.   

As Rabbi Held put it, “Judaism asks us both to care deeply and to act concretely.” The link between caring and acting explains why you have started or revived 12 different clubs during the past four years, many of which—like the Tikkun Olam union and Femininjas—have explicitly focused on shrinking the tragic gaps in our world. Heart leaders are moved to act from places of passion and personal authenticity.   

Graduates, it is not only God who needs you to help repair our world. The Jewish People and our American democracy are waiting for you, as well. A contemporary author named Terry Tempest Williams wrote:  

“The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up—ever—trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?”  

Listening. Generous. Whole Beings. This is the work of more than the mind. It is the work of the heart—of heart leadership and heart citizenship. And don’t think that his work is soft or light. This work of the heart is not touchy feely. Listen to Williams’ words: Resolved. Courageous. Relentless. Determined. This is the rigorous intellectual, moral, and spiritual work of balancing humility with passionate conviction, of acting with courage on behalf of our ideals while making space for others’ ideals, experiences, and points of view.  

One other unforgettable story from early this year happened when you modeled this for us with a different kind of activism, having the courage to initiate and take part in a silent conversation about Israel in response to a piece of artwork. In the aftermath of this summer’s Gaza war, in the face of so much broken-heartedness and fear about Israel, the Jewish People and the world, at a time where there is so much shouting but little listening, when civil discourse and simple tolerance for divergent opinions are rare, let alone pluralistic communities built on the values of compassion and empathy, you led our student body through a silent conversation that spoke loudly and clearly about the community we have the potential to be and the democracy we have the potential to restore.  

Class of 2015, what a four year journey it has been, with ups and downs, moments of sheer joy and great humor, as well as frustration and, yes, even heartbreak. As I reflect on all you have done and as I look at the people you have become, I want to thank you for helping me understand what Heart Leadership is all about.  

I wish you a lifetime of joy and success as you define it; may you continue to see and to feel, to create and to act with both compassion and generosity, as well as with courage and resolve. The world needs you. We love you, and we will miss you. Mazal tov. 


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