Below is the speech I delivered at the WYHS graduation last week. I worked on a theme that I had posted about earlier- God. The speech is in the black font. I added some of my thoughts about the speech in the red font in the parentheses.
The late David Foster Wallace began one of the more famous commencement addresses with a story I’d like to share with you. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says,”Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What in the world is water?” (I edited the language out of concern that the word “hell” might offend. The original language though does a better job.)
The great Foster Wallace developed an idea based on this little parable. I’d like to share my own with you. As he said, the point of the fish story is that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. (I used the DFW story and referenced him not really because I needed it to illustrate my point in the speech, although it did a pretty good job of that. My main reason was to sniff out any DFW fans in the audience. I was hoping that a few people might approach me after the graduation and tell me of their fondness for DFW. Alas, no one commented.)
I find it remarkable that we actually spend so little time talking about a specific type of water that we swim in.
You may be wondering- what is he talking about? What part of our lives that we take for granted is he referring to? Some of you are guessing that I’m talking about developing an appreciation for our Jewish community which we take for granted. Yes, he’s probably going to talk about the importance of serving the community and appreciating all it offers.
Or, after all this is a graduation speech, maybe he’s going to talk about why we should all appreciate the water known as Weinbaum Yeshiva High School in which we’ve been swimming for the past four years. Yeah, he’s going to talk about the extraordinary environment of WYHS which both nurtures and challenges us, the phenomenal teachers who help create that environment.
Then again, the water might also be our parents and families- they’ve supported us and given us so much of our identity.
Or maybe he’s using the water as a metaphor for Torah- it’s our natural environment and it serves us much like the water serves the fish. (I regret including the previous paragraphs listing the possible things that the audience might think I’m talking about. I like the message, but the speech was too long and removing these paragraphs would’ve cut off a minute or so.)
No, no no and no. I’m not talking about any of those four, as important as they are and even though I can certainly make an argument that our community, our school our parents and our Torah are all as indispensable and as important to us as the water is to the fish and that we should be more of aware of each of them. What do I think the water is? What do I wish all of us fish would have an easier time realizing and talking about? Hashem, God. My dear graduates we talk a lot about Torah and about Halacha, but how often do we talk about God?
We may even use the word sometimes, “Hashem” but it seems to me like we would all be better off if we actually thought about and recognized God a lot more often than I suspect many of us do. We are so much more comfortable talking about God when we talk about chumash. God created the world, and God took us out of Mitzrayim. (In an exercise I’ve used on shabbatonim, I’ve given students a list of relationships they might attribute to the way they see God. Some of the options include Father, Mother, King, Confidant, Friend and Creator. I’ve always felt that when a student chooses “Creator” it really means either that they don’t believe in God or that they’ve never thought about God.)
I fear though that many of us think of capital G God in a way that is way too similar to the lower case gods. The same God who created the world and took us out of Mitzrayim is with us today. He is just as real and matters as much in 2014 as he did back then. I feel like this is the water that we often don’t realize we’re swimming in. Let me tell you why I think it’s important to talk about this at your graduation.
First of all because it’s truth. Recognizing God in the beauty in this world, recognizing God in the Torah that we learn, recognizing God in the Tzelem Elokim that we see in every human being, recognizing God in the most sublime art that man can create, recognizing God in the elegance of His laws of physics, recognizing God in the felicitous phrases of your favorite poet, recognizing God in the miracle that is Medinat Yisrael, recognizing God today on Yom Yerushalayim as we celebrate His presence and His guidance of the miraculous feats of the tzanchanim in ‘67, recognizing God when you have that epiphany in the middle of a regular day of tedium and you realize oh my God, I am alive and it’s both exhilarating and terrifying, (This is the one that most personally resonates with me. Every once in a while I realize; I mean really REALIZE that I’m alive and I just know that there’s something more Real than the regular stuff) recognizing God when you love someone and you know that the connection is not explainable simply by understanding how the synapses fire and the serotonin is secreted. (I realized this a couple of years ago at a shabbaton when a colleague pointed out that he sees God when he feels completely connected to another human being. Knowing that there’s something more REAL in the connection than science or scientism can account for, makes you sense God.)
We know that God exists and that there is therefore something bigger, something more real, a deeper meaning in existence, than simply being a result of a chance mix of primordial soup. (Although a firm believer in scientific accounts of the age of the universe and the methods of natural selection, I prefer Slifkin’s version of theistic evolution.)
Our belief in God means that we know that there is meaning and urgency to existence.
But there’s more than being aware of the truth of God and knowing that there’s meaning in existence. That’s important but it’s in our heads, it’s just an awareness. There’s more, though. Swimming with God demands that we take action. There’s a beautiful midrash that describes how Avraham Avinu came to understand God. The midrash describes that Avraham saw a Bira Doleket, a palace that was radiating light. Avraham reasoned, is it possible that such a beautiful palace that radiates like that does not have an owner? At that point a man came out and said, I am the owner. The midrash continues, so too Avraham said is it possible that the world has no ruler? God answered Avraham and said I am the ruler. In this reading of the midrash, the palace is a metaphor for our world and the light radiating from it symbolizes the beauty and intricacy of creation. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers a daring reinterpretation of the midrash. A bira doleket is not a palace radiating light, a bira doleket is a palace on fire, a palace engulfed in flames. In other words, Avraham saw a beautiful world, but the world is on fire, it has so much wrong with it. Avraham asked, is it possible that this world on fire has no owner? To which God responded by reaching out to Avraham and saying- I am the owner. In Judaism, our belief in God means that there is a partnership. This is what spurred Avraham’s faith in God and it is what God demands of each and everyone of us. The palace is on fire, Avraham screams- Where is God? And God responds by saying I am here- in essence he says to Avraham where are you- why don’t you try to put out the fire? As Rabbi Sacks says, “ Judaism is a uniquely restless faith. Jews are always travelling, dissatisfied with the status quo and never quite merging with their environment. The midrash suggests where and how these traits began. For Judaism, faith is cognitive dissonance, the discord between the world that is and the world as it ought to be.” (I feared quoting Sacks since everyone quotes Sacks and it’s getting to the point where if you quote him people begin to roll their eyes. “No, not him again.” But his interpretation is just too good and I just love his “A Letter in the Scroll” so much.)
Dear Graduates, our belief in God is our partnership with God- We have a sacred and urgent mission in life, we have to put out the fires, we need to make God’s world beautiful, we need to bring holiness into this world, and you can do this. Our belief in God on one hand seems to be very traditional, but on the other hand our belief in God makes us very countercultural, iconoclastic. We cannot accept the world as it is. We have to imagine the world as it can be. When you realize that you’re swimming with God, you realize that you have an important mission in life.
The Victorian poet Robert Browning wrote: “God’s in His heaven— All’s right with the world.” (I discovered this quote not through my reading of Browning’s poetry. I was reading Rabbi Genack’s book of letters to President Clinton. In one of the missives by Rabbi Wurzburger, he quoted the poet and critiqued his message. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to cite Wurzburger in my speech. I did see the Browning quote in his book, but the quote is Browning’s. I’m not sure what I should have done.)
This is not the Jewish approach! If God is in His Heaven, then all is not right with the world. We have to realize that God plays a role in our everyday lives. We need to be like the wise old fish who swam by the two younger fish and said, How’s the water. He knew about the water.
Class of 2014, I have to offer you a personal thank you. You see you’ve been here for 4 years, and I’m just a freshman. Much like a new student, I was anxious coming to WYHS. Would the staff respond well to me, would the students be open to me… would I …have someone to sit next to at lunch. (This was my only attempt at getting laughs. Maybe I should’ve included some more…) As a group, and as individuals you have been wonderfully welcoming. Over the entire year I’ve marvelled at your close bonds, your balance of chilled-outedness and intensity and your care for each other. I’m excited to spend quality time with you on the senior trip. As so many of you go to study in Israel- you will be living in a land that makes it a lot easier and more natural to swim with, to experience God. Enjoy that environment and bring it back with you as you continue on your path.
As you graduate, let’s all try to do our best to be intimately aware of God, not just of the Torah and let’s take everything we’ve learned from teachers, parents, and our community and accept the challenge of the Bira Doleket, the palace in flames, let’s take some of the water and extinguish those flames as we partner with God in fixing His world.
The senior class selected a classmate to represent them this evening. I am so proud of the young man who will be speaking to you tonight. Please welcome David Ostrofsky. (David’s speech was probably the best high school graduation speech I’ve ever heard. It was witty, charming and interesting. David’s speech highlighted the religious and academic growth he’s made over the past four years. It reflected well on him and his family. It was also a high point of pride for the school.)