Graduation Speech 2019: Mountain Climbing

Below is the speech I delivered at last night’s graduation.  Annotations are in red.

Dear Graduates,

Mazal Tov, Congratulations, Felicidades. (In order to understand this speech you need to know that our senior class travelled to Guatemala last week for its senior trip. In order to understand why we travelled to Guatemala, I’ll need to write another post. Suffice it to say that the trip was extraordinary.) The past four years have been a journey that we have travelled together. I’ve sometimes felt like the dad driving, listening to the kids in the backseat say “Are we there yet?” Well, we are here now. You’ve made it and you should be very proud of yourselves. After learning to navigate the narrow pathways of our school in BRS for 2 years, you quickly learned how to travel the scenic highways of our new campus over your junior and senior years. In order to travel well, you’ve been guided by your parents, your teachers and your friends, all who together formed a GPS of sorts, a crowdsourced navigation system, much like waze.  Let’s actually talk about navigation systems like waze for a few minutes.

Most of us would be completely lost without using the Israeli-developed app Waze, which by the way(ze) (When speaking last night I said “by the way” in stead of “by the waze”- I was afraid of groans.) was bought by Google in 2013 for over 1 billion dollars. I can confidently say that the most important app on my smartphone is waze. It has saved me tremendous amounts of time, helped me avoid speed traps, allowed me to confidently visit neighborhoods and cities I had never been to. While I admit that many of the apps on my smartphone are time wasters and many of them distract me from more important face to face matters, it would seem that waze is the exception. GPS navigation sure seems like a great example of the unmitigated benefits of technological progress. I never get lost. I avoid traffic and I get to where I want to go quickly.

But is there something we lose by using apps like waze?

Adults, I’m going to point out a difference between our growing up and our kids growing up that may surprise you. Do you remember what it was like to be driving and to be lost? Unsure if you were supposed to make the right or the left at the fork in the road, rolling down your window and asking a stranger for directions or stopping at a gas station to ask which way to the highway, or even pulling off to the side of the road and studying a map you kept in your glove compartment? Our kids have never had that experience. They’ve never been lost. iPhones were invented in 2007, when our graduates were 6 years old. The only way they get lost is if their phone battery died and they don’t have a charging cable in the car. Researchers actually point out that there are several downsides to using turn by turn navigation apps.  (I found some of this information in this article in Time) In a certain way they erode our brain’s ability to form cognitive maps and develop spatial reasoning, seeing how various parts fit to create a whole. But I want to focus on a particular skill that we lose out on when we use GPS. There’s something character building about getting lost and figuring out how to get to where you’re going. There’s something gratifying about looking at a map and solving a puzzle. There’s something that makes us better people by asking others for help and to point us in the right direction. That was a formative part of the grown ups’ experience but it’s something that you, our graduates have not really experienced. Now here’s what’s tricky- even though I think that the challenge of figuring out the puzzle of a map is great and even though asking a stranger for directions can build a sense of community, I would never go back to the pre-waze era. It’s just not worth it.  

So what I’d like to explore with you this evening is the benefit of difficult things. Even though technology is about making our lives easier we have to be careful to make sure that we don’t buy into that as a philosophy of life.  We all know from experience that something which is more difficult, which demands greater investment is so much more meaningful and brings so much more joy than something which is easy and can be performed simply.

Isn’t this actually the entire message of Judaism? Life is hard and life is messy and we have work to do.  As Rav Soloveitchik writes in his famous footnote 4 of Halachik Man- please tell me Jewish History students that you remember footnote 4- That religious consciousness in man’s experience which is most profound and most elevated, which penetrates to the very depths and ascends to the very heights, is not that simple and comfortable. On the contrary, it is exceptionally complex, rigorous, and tortuous. Where you find its complexity, there you find its greatness. (I was so relieved last night when I caught a few graduates in the front row giving me knowing nods when I referred to footnote 4.) Halacha makes demands on me. It is hard. You can’t relax. There is work to be done. It’s not easy, but who in their right mind actually, really wants everything to be easy?

Admittedly, this is a difficult lesson to learn because it conflicts with another genuine value- that of simplicity and convenience. So much of our world is geared toward making our lives easier- that’s why we love and value apps like waze. Judaism is not opposed to making our lives more manageable. How do we balance these two competing values- convenience and comfort versus challenge and discomfort.

I think I began to understand how to navigate this conflict last week. I understood it by watching and learning from you. Let me explain.

I was astounded last week as we were trekking down the Acatenango mountain after let’s call it an adventurous night. (That’s an understatement. It rained heavily, there were strong winds and there was even an earthquake in the middle of the night. But it was really cool to see the Fuego volcano erupting multiple times throughout the night.) I was bringing up the rear and I was able to procure a horse with about an hour and a half remaining to the bottom. I was feeling fine but I knew that there were some kids who were exhausted and could really benefit from a horse ride to the end instead of going by foot. So I started a slow trot down the mountain looking for kids who could use a horse. I passed kid after kid, saying “Hey, I have a horse for you- take it.”  Kid after exhausted kid, said “No rebbe, I want to do this on my own.” But the horse is paid for- just get on. “No rebbe, I’m going to to do this myself. Find someone who needs it more.” Without exaggeration, I offered the horse to just about every kid in the grade- all who sternly refused me, until finally with about 45 minutes to the end, I was able to essentially force a student who was not feeling that great, by telling her that the hike was basically over and that I wasn’t asking her if she wanted the horse but commanding her to take the horse to the bottom.

What was going on there?  What about that mountain so captivated us and why wouldn’t anyone take my horse? I think that there are three lessons I learned from you at that moment and I’d like to share them with you. Lesson #1 is the value of a Mountain. Lesson #2 is the value of a Horse and Lesson #3 is the value of Disbelief.

  1. Lesson #1- The value of the Mountain. You realized that doing something really hard is gratifying and character building- that mountain was literal and figurative. So I challenge you to do impossible things. When you’re in yeshiva or seminary, challenge yourself to do something really hard. Stay up all night every Thursday night learning. Don’t just go to your friend’s homes in Yerushalayim for shabbos, find some random family on a yishuv in the middle of nowhere.  In College don’t take the courses that are the easy A’s. Take the hard course that challenges you, even if you get a B in it. You’ll be better for it. And also, doing something challenging is always better when you do it with a group. The bonds that you form with friends when engaged in difficult work are bonds that last a lifetime. Lesson 1- Look for mountains.
  2. Leson #2- The value of the Horse. At the moment when everyone was declining my horse offer, I realized another truth- we should always seek challenges for ourselves and be comfortable with our own discomfort,  but we should always do whatever we can to make others more comfortable. Rav Yisrael Salanter is quoted as saying that you should make other people’s gashmiyus your ruchniyus. In other words, be radically committed to improving other people’s material lives, their gashmiyus, help them eat, earn, and live, let the parents of the child with autism have some time to themselves when you play with their child, and let that be your ruchniyus- your religious fulfillment.  Lesson 2 – Share your horse.
  3. And finally lesson #3- The value of Disbelief. I don’t mean to say something as trite as “Believe in Yourself.” I’m saying something more than that. You are more capable than the world usually gives you credit for. You showed it last week. Because we live in an increasingly dangerous society, we protect our children and shield them. We plan their play dates, their after school activities, their summer internships. Our kids check in with us to let us know where they are, we follow them with the gps locator on their phones.  Our kids are so over programmed that I fear that sometimes our kids feel like they’re supposed to do exactly and precisely what we expect them to do. Here’s the point- you’re incredible. Sometimes you surprise yourselves and accomplish more than you’re supposed to and that should be a wake up call. When you look inside yourself, really look inside yourself, and shed the expectations that others have of you, whether it’s society, school, parents, friends, you know that you can do so much more. Lesson 3- Don’t believe everyone who tells you what you’re supposed to do and what you’re capable of. Disbelieve them.  

As I close, I want to let each of you know that it has been an honor to serve as your Head of School.  We’ve been through a lot together. I’ve tried my best and I am grateful to you for the warmth and kindness with which you’ve treated me.  I am proud of you. I love you and I know that you will continue to embrace mountains, share horses and disbelieve the casual limitations that the world so easily places upon you. (I liked that previous sentence because it’s not that society is actively trying to squelch creativity or stifle ambition. It’s just that we are casually unimaginative.)  Thank you graduates. KYHS is a wonderful place, it has loved you and you have loved it back. It will miss you, and I know that we will miss it too. And maybe, just maybe, take a road trip this summer, hide your smartphone and buy yourself a roadmap. And that can make all the difference. (The speech had a Road Not Taken feel to it, so I thought I’d end the speech by dropping this little Frost reference to entertain anyone who caught it.)


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