Graduation Speech 2016 Annotated. Yes, 2016.

I just posted my graduation speech that I gave a couple of weeks ago and I realized that I never posted the speech from the previous year. Annotations in red. It’s not very fresh in mind, so the annotations are few:

This past weekend I had the good fortune of joining the seniors on their trip to New York. It was great. I found myself along with the seniors laughing and smiling the whole time. My highlight  was our participation in the Salute to Israel parade down 5th Avenue.  From 56th street to 72nd Street our seniors sang more loudly than the music blaring from the speakers on the floats and danced more energetically than the professional marching bands,  as the spectators cheered for us approvingly. You guys were incredible. Your  happiness, your laughter, your smiling got me thinking and I’d like to share some thoughts with you tonight about happiness.

The most startling pasuk in the Torah comes in Parshat Ki Tavo. After listing a series of awful punishments, the Torah clarifies what precisely it is that makes the Jews worthy of such painful punishments:

תחת אשר לא עבדת את ה׳ אלוקיך בשמחה ובטוב לבב מרב כל

Since you didn’t worship God with simcha- happiness and tuv levav– gladness of heart. That’s an astounding pasuk!  You may have done all the mitzvot, but that’s not good enough. Mitzvot without happiness- it’s just not enough.

Happiness is not only a critical element in Jewish practice,  it’s also a critical element in American political thought. The pursuit of happiness was enshrined into the declaration of independence by Thomas Jefferson. It’s an unalienable right.

Dear seniors, the Torah tells us that to be a good Jew we should be happy and the declaration of independence tells us that be a good American we should be happy. So how do we do it?

It’s not so easy, and everyone is trying to figure it out. Last night I went to Amazon to find a book on happiness- there were 96,269 books focussed on happiness. That’s 10,000 more books than friendship, 30 thousand more titles than on Judaism and 60,000 more than those about wealth. The most popular course ever in Harvard is the one given by the Israeli expert on Happiness, Tal Ben Shachar. So where do we go?

The Viennese psychiatrist Victor Frankl survived the holocaust and wrote a remarkable little book called Man’s Search for Meaning. Based on his experience in the concentration camps, he developed a theory of meaning and happiness. He writes:

happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen….you have to let it happen by not caring about it.

In other words, Jefferson’s phrase of the “pursuit of happiness” is actually a cause of great unhappiness. You can’t try to be happy. The more you pursue it the more it eludes you. So how do we find that happiness?

I’d like to talk propose two types of happiness: The happiness associated with Smiling and the happiness associated with Laughter.

First the happiness of smiling:

Rabbi Walter Wurzburger in the introduction to one of his books, shares a beautiful anecdote- a conversation he had with a Christian student of theology whom he attempted to dissuade from converting:

Appealing to her rather extensive knowledge of Jewish texts I asked her:

“Why such a drastic step as to embrace Judaism? You are fully aware that according to Jewish belief, there is no need for this because the pious of all nations are assured of a place in the World-To-Come.”

Her answer gave me a new insight into the meaning of my religious heritage:

‘I know that but I do not want to wait until the hereafter; I want the World-To-Come in the hear and now.”

This encounter with an outsider made me realize how as an insider, I was unable to appreciate what precious treasures I possessed in my religious tradition. It occurred to me that many fellow jews could also fail to appreciate how much jewish religious faith could contribute to the meaningfulness and worthwhileness of their existence. Thank you to R. Shmuel Hain who first showed me this piece from R. Wurzburger several years ago. 

Judaism is supposed to make you happy. Seniors, don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming that Judaism is simply a religion of tranquil waters and warm feelings- you and I are familiar with Rav Soloveitchik’s famous footnote 4 in Halachic Man. I made a big deal out of footnote 4 when we looked at Rav Soloveitchik in the Jewish History trimester course of Revolutionary Jewish Thinkers. Rather, to live a halachik lifestyle is to live a life in which all of our actions are imbued with ultimate meaning, a life that promotes godly values and strives to train us to be ethical, caring, noble and even holy. That is the world to come in the here and now.  This is the happiness of a smile- Tuv Levav. A life of meaning and accomplishment makes you smile with pride and happiness.

But there’s also a second type of happiness- an unbridled enthusiasm, not the Tuv Levav, but the Simcha that the pasuk referred to. Not just a smile, but  laughter.  It’s not just that happiness ensues, we are also asked to have a great time doing mitzvot- עבדו את ה’ בשמחה. The celebratory singing, the dynamic dancing and the luxuriant laughter OK, reading that alliteration a year later, it seems a bit much, but at the time I liked it that accompanied our march down 5th avenue as we belted out Hatikvah and  Lshana Habaa reminded me that in addition to Tuv Levav, in addition to smiling, we need to have Simcha, we need to laugh.

Dear graduates, you have a lot to be happy about tonight. You’re not just happy because you’re ready to go on to the next stage of life. You’re happy because you know that you lived a meaningful 4 years here in YHS. You learned, you celebrated, you laughed and you enjoyed each other’s company; by growing as thoughtful religious young men and women you’ve achieved that happiness and you have good reason to smile.

I’m so proud of you. I’m so happy for you.  Thank you for the joy, thank you for the laughter and thank you for allowing me to look back together with you on a job well done and to smile with you.

As I reread this now a year later, I really think that this message of understanding the big picture of living a life of commitment to a mitzvot, is critical to emphasize to students. It’s a mistake to motivate shmirat hamitzvot only by focusing on the fact that we are metzuveh. It doesn’t work and it’s also wrong to focus exclusively on carrying the burden of mitzvot, but to focus on the fact that shmirat hamitzvot is ennobling. 


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