Below is the speech I gave at last night’s KYHS graduation ceremony. My annotations are in red.
It lasted about 48 hours. Maybe 72. It was fascinating, frustrating, eye opening or more accurately ear opening, and if you were a normal person like me, of course you heard Yanny.
I can acknowledge that some people actually heard Laurel, but I do so begrudgingly and with a mild suspicion that in a solipsistic sort of way I’m being played. (I admit that I included this previous sentence just because I’ve always wanted to say “solipsistic.”) Why did the Yanny Laurel debate break the internet a couple of weeks ago? I’d like to suggest that it was not merely a curiosity but that it touched upon a cultural quandary (alliteration #1) that is at the heart of our existence in 2018 and that it hints at a message I’d humbly like to share with you, my beloved class of 2018.
We are living in a poisoned political environment. (alliteration #2) We each retreat into our own silos and treat the other suspiciously. We believe that we are correct. We assume the other has nothing but lies and nonsense to offer me. I saw a report on Fox News the other night that said… Oh wait, I mean I saw the report on CNN…. Actually, there was no report, but I assume that the CNN citizens (alliteration #3) in the crowd bristled when I said Fox News and assumed that the report was propaganda. And I assume that the Fox News folk (alliteration #4) rolled their eyes when I said CNN and imagined that the report was just a bunch of fake news.
This is why the Yanny Laurel debate was so captivating. We were drawn to the reality that you and I each heard the same thing, and that I heard Yanny, while you heard Laurel and that we were both telling the truth. We were drawn to the belief that someone else could disagree with me but not be full of nonsense. You don’t have to be wrong for me to be right. (I liked the sound of that idea. I thought I came up with it on my own. Then I remembered that Brad Hirschfield wrote a book with that title.) We instinctively know that this is true. And the Yanny Laurel debate in a strange sort of way was the distraction that we needed to draw us out of our silos. Yannys and Laurels debated but didn’t demonize. Yanny and Laurel were the rebbes who taught us that you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right. There’s not just one wrong and one right but we can both be right! I’d like to extend this message beyond politics.
In this past week’s parsha the Torah describes how Miriam and Aharon got into trouble for doubting the singularity of Moshe’s greatness as a prophet. Hashem declares that Moshe is unique: פֶּה אֶל-פֶּה אֲדַבֶּר-בּוֹ- I speak with Moshe face to face. In this perek the Torah also declares that Moshe was the humblest man in the world- וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה, עָנָו מְאֹד–מִכֹּל, הָאָדָם, אֲשֶׁר, עַל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה. Why did the Torah tell us about Moshe’s humility in the context of discussing his extraordinary talent? I’d like to suggest that it wasn’t just to point out that although Moshe was wise, he was nevertheless humble. It’s not that he was great and also possessed humility, but that Moshe was great because of his humility.
A smart man once said, “Humility doesn’t mean that you think less of yourself but that you think of yourself less.” (That smart man? Pastor Rick Warren.) I can be right- I do not think less of myself, but if I want to improve, I need to focus on myself less and instead focus on what I can learn from others. The Mishna in Avot states- איזהו חכם הלומד מכל אדם. Who is wise? He who learns from every person. It doesn’t say- הלומד מכל ישראל who learns from every Jew or מכל אדם שמסכים עם ההשקפה שלי from everyone who agrees with my worldview, but מכל אדם from every man. You become wise by emerging from the silo, looking for others, listening to them and learning from them.
As proud Modern Orthodox Jews, we dare not be too smug when looking at Jews who are different than us. We can acknowledge that we have a lot to learn from the more yeshivish world in terms of single minded commitment to Talmud Torah. We should be humble enough to look at other communities and learn from them. As a proud yet humble Modern Orthodox Jew, I should be able to look at the Reform community and say that we have a lot to learn about commitment to social justice from them. Must we be so tribalistic at our own peril and ignore the lessons we can learn from others?
I’d like to suggest that learning from others with whom I profoundly disagree, has another benefit. It’s not just result oriented- that I can get some good ideas and use them to improve my community. It’s also process oriented- the act of looking for good in others with whom I disagree is ennobling, it’s character building. When we look for the good in others, we become more generous, less cynical people.
I hope I’ve convinced you to realize that the key to wisdom is humility. We don’t have all of the answers ourselves. We have a lot to learn from others.
As I close , allow me to turn the tables and discuss what I can humbly learn from you. I’m the teacher, but I really want to thank you, the class for teaching me so much. הלומד מכל אדם and in this case you are the people who have taught me, I’ll just focus on 3 things-
- When they write the history books of KYHS, much will be made of the Friday night circle on your senior trip. Parents- ask your kids about it. I’ve been in chinuch for 22 years and I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I saw humility’s partner- vulnerability, as you showed me how to express appreciation for those who you love and care. Thank you for showing me the power of vulnerability.
- I want to tell you how much I’ve learned from the incredible commitment of time, energy and love you’ve given to the school- whether the hundreds of hours making elaborate videos, stunning yearbooks and extraordinary artwork that has contributed so much to the school even though it has gone largely underappreciated. Why have you done these things for the school? Love. You’ve taught me that if the school loves and respects its students then they’re likely to go to the end of the world for you.
- And finally, thank you for teaching me that the definition of cool is incredibly flexible. I’ve marvelled at the way that your class has respected each member of your community. It’s not just respect but love. Your own sense of humility has allowed you to embrace as cool the athletes, the mathletes, the geeks, the nerds, artists, the techies, the outsiders, the insiders, and everyone in between. Thank you for teaching me how to respect every member of the community. You have embodied the message of a willingness to accept the “other” and to value those who may think or act differently than you do.
Thank you seniors. Whether you’re a Laurel or a Yanny, I’ll always love you. I hope that we’ll all be able to proudly and fiercely be loyal to our convictions while humbly opening ourselves up to the wisdom to be learned from others. Mazal Tov.