Let Your Light Shine

Gann Academy Graduation 
June 10, 2012  

Graduation Speech 
Rabbi Marc Baker, Head of School 


Friends, parents, grandparents, family members, colleagues, esteemed guests, my dear students, Class of 2012… 

Some of you might have seen, read, or heard about the provocative Wellesley High School graduation speech given by English teacher David McCullough, Jr. Mr. McCullough’s speech has gone viral and has generated a great deal of buzz because of his message to the students: “None of you is special. You are not special. And you are not exceptional.”  

As you can imagine, this message has raised some eyebrows. I think it’s fair to call it a somewhat cynical rant against what he sees as a generation of kids who are coddled and entitled with an overblown sense of their own “specialness” and against what he sees as the adults who are responsible for this. The speech goes on to critique our society for lowering standards and de-valuing achievement in the face of accolades that are false, or, at least, too easy to come by.  And finally, he shifts to a more traditional graduation speech, charging the graduates to “learn for the sake of learning,” “do what you love,” and “seize the day.”  

It is certainly hard to argue with the inspiring second half of McCullough’s speech. In fact, many people are applauding him for his anti-special rant as well, but I beg to differ with his core message.   

In fact, I am here today to tell you that you will walk out those doors in a few minutes and into the world with tremendous opportunity and tremendous responsibility precisely because each and every one of you is special.  

McCullough hits his rhetorical peak when he suggests that, on a planet with nearly seven billion people, even if you are one in a million, there are still 7,000 people just like you. In his eyes, you are, quite simply, not unique. I was struck by the stark contrast between this claim and the well-known midrash, a version of which can be found in the Babylonian Talmud, Masechet Sanhedrin 38a, which compares God’s creation of human beings to the striking of coins. When human beings mint coins, each coin has exactly the same image. Yet, when God creates people, although they are all created in God’s image, each is unique. This is true physically, certainly genetically, and it is true morally and spiritually as well. This midrash rejects the notion that if everyone is special, no one is special, and, instead, introduces the paradoxical nature of the human being: on the one hand, we are all similar; we are children of the same parent, so to speak; we are created in the same image, God’s image. On the other hand, our tradition honors radical uniqueness of every person. Graduates, you are not one in a million; you’re one in almost seven billion.  

Being created in the Image of God, B’Tzelem Elohim, means that your specialness is an ontological category. It is part of your being; it is definitional to what it means to be human; it is not something you have to earn; conversely, being special doesn’t earn you a medal nor does it elevate you above others. The fact that you are special must not generate self-indulgence, entitlement, or egotism; rather, it should generate a deep sense of obligation and responsibility toward yourselves, others, and the world.   

We see this in the makhloket, the dispute between the great Tannaitic sages Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai about what is the Klal Gadol, the great principle, of the Torah.  

According to Rabbi Akiva, the great principal of the Torah is “v’ahavta l’reecha kamocha” – love thy neighbor, your fellow-person, as yourself. According to Ben Azzai, the great principle of the Torah is the fact that we are all created B’Tzelem Elohim. 

The power of preserving both of these perspectives, one right next to the other, is the interconnectedness in Judaism between the spiritual and the moral.  

We begin with the knowledge that we and others are created B’Tzelem Elohim – that we are unique, we are special. This, in turn, generates a moral and spiritual obligation to love ourselves as well as to love the other and all people. And this love, in turn, must be translated into action. Let me share three thoughts about what it might mean to live and love with an awareness that we are all created B’Tzelem Elohim.  

One, this love is not conditional because it is a function of each person’s divine essence. I love you because I see your light and because, on the deepest spiritual level, we are interconnected. Even when I don’t like you, I love the part of you that even you might not be in touch with right now.  

Two, this kind of love is not a feeling. I think Stephen Covey says it best in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People when he describes his response to a husband who complains that he just doesn’t love his wife anymore. Covey responds, “Why don’t you try loving her?” The husband is confused. Covey explains, “Love is a verb. Love – the feeling – is the fruit of love the verb or our loving actions. So love her,” Covey says. “Sacrifice. Listen to her. Empathize. Appreciate. Affirm her.”  

Three, this love is what Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook describes in his Middot HaRaayah as a Moral Principle. What does it mean for love to be a moral principle? According to  Rav Kook, the mystic , “One must discipline himself to the love of all people . . .The Love for people must be alive in heart and soul, a love for all people and a love for all nations, expressing itself in a desire for their spiritual and material advancement.” For Rav Kook, we need to understand the other in order to base our human love on foundations that will readily translate themselves into action. This is what I call the mystical foundation of pluralism.  

To love means to see the divine potential in every person, to desire the actualization of that potential, and to work – through our actions – toward that actualization.   

Contrary to Mr. McCullough’s message, moral action starts with the very recognition that you are special and, therefore, capable of seeing the special in everyone.   

Being Created in the Image of God is both a gift and a responsibility. It means that on the deepest spiritual level, graduates, you are complete; you are enough; you are deserving of God’s and other people’s love; You can and should be comfortable with and confident in who you are. At the same time, this is not about  coddling or protecting yourselves or others from failure, from learning, from growth; being special and acting special are rigorous; it is a discipline; it requires an intense focus not on the surface of what you achieve or don’t achieve but rather on who you are and who you can become.  

You are co-creators and co-repairers of the world, which means you must strive—to improve yourselves and to lift up those around you; you must work hard work—to sharpen your minds, to unleash your creativity, to refine your character, to deepen your connection with Judaism, to participate in society and to engage with the world.  Don’t expect the world to come to you; don’t settle for status quo; and don’t let the people you love settle in their lives either.  

My dear graduates, over the past four years you have not settled, and the lights of your neshamot, your souls, have lit up our school. Last week, on your retreat at Camp YJ, your closing circle, call it a fishbowl if you like, was one I will never forget. You sat for nearly an hour, and you held a space in which you could share in profound and personal ways how you’ve learned and grown over these past four years. Let me reflect back to you some of the ways you talked about the people you’ve become: You’ve learned to be open to people and not just your friends; you’ve learned how much farther you have to go—how important questions are and how much more you want to learn about yourselves; you’ve grown into a deeper understanding of yourselves because of how your teachers have challenged you; you’ve learned to ‘own your weird;’ you’ve taken down your shield (and grown out your bangs); graduates, you have worked to find yourselves and, in the process, made it safe for others to do the same.  

Throughout these four years, culminating on Senior Night and in your siyum today, we have seen your creativity, your drive, and your commitment to excellence: from a new and improved Shevuon to your legendary Shabbatonim to the Va’ad to a broken nose in the Maimo game; from reading with underprivileged children to conducting an orchestra; from two straight robotics world championships to the Day of Dialogue to The Looking Glass; from Division 1 cycling to Samuel Bak; from cancer research to the Chemistry of Cooking to Homeward Bound; you have shared with us your love for your passions, for each other, and for the world.  

What you have shared has been special. But in my eyes, what has been most special has been the very fact that you have shared. You have made it possible for each other to shine by creating a community that is worthy of the Image of God in which each of you was created.  

Dr. Coulson once shared an observation with me in the middle of a Shabbaton. He said, “I have never seen kids who are so real with one another.” In a world where so many high school students spend their time trying to be the people who they think other people want them to be and to hide their real selves for fear of being exposed, judged, or rejected, your level of honesty, openness and authenticity is extraordinary.  Your willingness to reveal your inner light is courageous and inspiring.  

I want to close with an abridged version of a story told by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which Rabbi Bard has shared with many of us, and which is in the spirit of yesterday’s Torah Portion, B’haalotcha, in which we read about the lighting of the Menorah:   

A Hasid once asked:  “Rebbe, what is a Jew’s task in this world?” The Rebbe answered:  “A Jew is a lamplighter on the streets of the world.  In olden days, there was a person in every town who would light the gas street-lamps with a light he carried at the end of a long pole.  On the street corners, the lamps were there in readiness, waiting to be lit; a lamp-lighter has a pole with a flame supplied by the town.  He knows that the fire is not his own, and he goes around lighting all the lamps on his route.” 

The Hasid asked:  “How does one become a lamplighter?”  The Rebbe replied:  “One must begin with oneself, cleansing oneself, becoming more refined, and then one sees the other as a source of light, waiting to be ignited.  When, Heaven forbid, one is crude, then one sees but crudeness; but when one is noble, one sees nobility.” 

As you move on to the next stage of your journeys: 

 Know that you are special and live in ways that do justice to the Divine Image in each of you; 

Translate that knowledge into love and love with the rigor of moral imperative; and 

Let your brilliant lights shine and be a source of fuel to ignite other lights, especially those that too often remain hidden in our world.  

Which is all another way of saying, Class of 2012, Fire It Up!  

We love you, and we’ll miss you. 


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