Thank you for the invitation to speak at this wonderful event. Mazal Tov to the graduates and to all who are part of the JCLP program.
Mazal Tov to spouses and partners, parents, grandparents, siblings, good friends.
I want to begin by thanking all of you for not saying what my father used to say, in jest. But, he said it nonetheless. He used to say about my decision to become a rabbi: “What kind of job is that for a Jewish boy?” He was kidding but there are many who say it seriously when they hear that a daughter or son, husband or wife, partner or friend plans to serve in the Jewish community in whatever capacity. Thank you for not saying it (or thank you, graduates, for not listening if they did say it.) Seriously, thank you for encouraging in whatever way you did the graduates to see the meaning in sharing their talents within our community. And, thank you to the graduates for investing your time, efforts and expertise in the future of the American Jewish community. Speaking as part of the generation which is starting to step aside in deference to a new generation of leaders, we are counting on you to shape our future.
I have never delivered a commencement address before but I’ve heard my share of them. Most of them were very nice but somewhat unremarkable in the long run. However, one was absolutely unforgettable for me because of one sentence which has echoed in my mind since I heard it at a graduation several years ago.
I won’t tell you who said it as perhaps he regrets it, perhaps not, but trust me it was a well known individual. At a university graduation which I had quite a personal stake in, the commencement speaker urged the graduates to be the generation which took a different path than its predecessors.
In and of itself, as you’ll hear from me later, that’s not bad, of course. But it was the focus of the divergence that he proposed that was stunning.
He said: “It’s shocking how many Americans swallow that old story. Maybe you’ll be the generation that moves past the ancient fiction.”
The fiction he was referring to was belief in God.
We happened to be sitting near those receiving graduate degrees in theology. There were a couple of gasps and one graduate actually fell off his chair.
I was astounded and furious.
Now, let me be clear. I have no interest in turning this into a speech urging faith in the divine. Faith is an intensely personal issue and as we all know belief in God doesn’t necessarily correlate with a life of ethics and certainly should never affect one’s status in the Jewish community. But, while it really doesn’t concern me whether one does or doesn’t believe in God. I do care deeply that the lessons that belief and our other ancient foundational principles have taught us survive for untold numbers of generations to come.
So today, I want to talk about foundational principles that I hope you will continue to perpetuate and those that I hope you will in fact move past in the work you do.
So, let me offer three foundational principles that I hope you never abandon.
We have chosen to believe as Jews that human beings are inherently equal as we have each been created with the spark of something greater.
So, graduates. endeavor to treat every individual you come into contact within your work as your equal. Learn from them as you teach them. Let them inspire you as you seek to inspire them. Stand with them, not above them. Recognize in each of them the spark of humanity and the spark of holiness and, if you will, the divine spark.
And, that leads to a second principle. From the Torah’s description of Moses’ relationship with God and the rabbinic tradition of Aaron as peacemaker between individuals, we have chosen to believe as Jews that panim el panim, face to face, is the best way to interact with others. Stand up for that principle. I’m not going to ask you to lead a revolution against technology because it can be such a great help in reaching people and in uniting people. But, it can’t be the whole story. Take the time to look people in the eye face to face and recognize that a handshake or, in the proper circumstances of course, a hug, can do much more than a text message ever could.
Finally, and most importantly, we live in an era in which the increase of forces of hatred and division have torn our hearts and put Jews in danger and have endangered the lives of so many of our brothers and sisters of so many different communities whom we must stand with and stand up for. Given this reality, it is even more critical that we remember always that we have chosen to believe as Jews that the redemption of our world is in our hands and that it can and will happen.
“If you will it, it is not a dream” could be said about every aspect of our world. No matter how bad things seem, and we have every reason to be apprehensive and fearful, never give up on this world. Never stop being an idealist, rooted in pragmatism and reality, yes, but believing in the greatest dreams that you or anyone could imagine.
These basic foundational principles, of equality, of humanness, of faith and hope in the future are in fact what I believe our tradition meant when it talked about belief in God. But, with or without the theological element, they are what should motivate every individual who works within the Jewish community or who takes the principles learned in a Jewish environment into the world at large.
Never give up on them.
But, as much as it is your role to embrace foundational principles of mythic proportions, it is your role as well to be descendants of Abraham who break the idols of the past.
One of my favorite sermons that I ever delivered was about recognizing that our parents were wrong about some things and to accept that. If that weren’t the case, if we didn’t admit the wrong in what we have been taught, there would be no progress in the world.
So, let me tell you about some of the idols I hope you break, whether you choose to use a sledgehammer or a chisel, knowing full well that my generation has been responsible for spreading some of these givens and hoping you will not be reticent to change them.
Some of these are already on the way to being broken but each generation of leaders needs to commit itself to pushing the boundaries further and opening our community beyond the ideas of the past.
Break the myth that still exists out there that no Jews face mental health issues, that no Jews are financially unstable, that no Jews are in prison, that abuse couldn’t exist in a Jewish home.
Very few actually believe this fallacy but too many of us act like we do, closing our eyes to the problems that exist within the Jewish community. You know they are there. And, they must be addressed. Take pride in the work you do with people who are in need and make sure that the leaders you work with confront the issues that face our people, acknowledging them when considering budgetary priorities and acknowledging them with the very language that they use each day.
Secondly, break the fiction that we need to have firm red lines, firm uncrossable boundaries whether political or otherwise in order to keep our values strong.
We have, as an American Jewish community, been too eager at times to close people out who express opinions we don’t want to hear or who from whatever perspective we feel should be outside the fold.
You need to break this fiction. Yes, there are ideas which are counterproductive to our future but we have drawn our red lines much too firmly and not wisely enough. We can address difficult questions and differences of opinion without exclusion. Break the fiction that we need to build firm unbreachable walls around us.
And, finally, break the fiction that says about our Jewish community and of Judaism itself that, in the words of one my favorite songwriters, Jim Steinman (and I’ll give extra credit to anyone who knows which song this comes from): “It was long ago and it was far away and it was so much better than it is today”.
Too many people look at the Jewish community and lament the lack of this or the lack of that, whether learning, dedication, seriousness, whatever.
This fiction certainly needs to be broken.
There are so many positive signs that people are finding meaning in Judaism, in Jewish values, in belonging. They are seeing new opportunities and new reasons to embrace rituals, study, social action in a Jewish context. Don’t let anyone tell you our best days are behind us. The days ahead might be vastly different but they can be every bit as great or greater.
You have too much to do than to listen to long speeches so I’ll end by saying help us to widen and strengthen our tents.
Thanks for listening and thank you for all that you have done and will do. Hizku v’Imtsu, be strong and courageous and do good work every day.