A Commencement Speech by Sam Glaser
It gives me great nachas to stand here with you today. I have watched many of you grow up, either as your music teacher at Hillel or YULA, or as you have befriended my own children, one of whom, Jesse Glaser is wearing a cap and gown today. Some of you are thinking that this ceremony is not a big deal. Some are here because your parents made you show up. Some of the guys are plotting pranks, some girls can’t wait to get the gown off because they think they look fat.
I chose to speak because I want to tell you that this is, in fact, a big deal. Graduates of this legendary institution have gone on to remarkable careers in business, science, law and medicine, becoming powerful leaders in their communities. Some even have gone on to become teachers and rabbis! Most importantly, they have done so as proud Modern Orthodox Jews, fully aware of the presence of God, cherishing every mitzvah, seizing opportunities for chesed. Because they are interfacing with society at large, they have touched countless others with whom they interact. You’ll learn that it doesn’t matter so much what you choose as your career as it does whether you are a Kiddush Hashem, one who is sanctifying God’s name everyday.
At this point in your lives you may not feel that this is priority number one. This is the peak of a period in your lives where you are doing the normal activity called individuation. That means you are rebelling in your own unique way, distancing yourself from your parents and teachers, worrying about what everyone thinks about you, wondering what you are going to do with your life, struggling with a toxic combination of angst and shpilkes. Leaving your parents and siblings isn’t easy but it’s necessary if you’re going to stand on your own. Believe it or not, your occasional ungrateful or obnoxious behavior is a crucial function of your pituitary gland that serves to make your adoring parents want to throw you out of the house.
What’s next for you is the greatest, most exciting ride ofyour lives that you will ever experience. How totally amazing to share this moment on the edge with you. You’ll notice that when you tell anyone how old you are you will see a hint of jealousy. You are in the prime of your lives, filled with optimism, ready to change the world. Most of you will be spending a year studying in Israel. That’s the best place in the world to be young, open minded and adventurous while learning about spirituality, learning about yourself and learning how to survive waiting in line with Israelis. This is a magical time when you are on your own and yet you still have your folks helping with the bills and offering advice, even if you pay no attention. People go to Paris to learn about food and romance, to Italy to learn food and art and to Jerusalem to learn about God. It’s said that the air makes you wise and that access to God is a “local phone call.” Around a quarter of you are going straight to college. Mazeltov on getting accepted. I will be davening for your souls.
You see, one of the problems with individuation is that Hashem can get thrown off the bus. Separating from your parents is a good thing. Separating from Hashem is not. Remember the song from kindergarten? Hashem is everywhere. Loving you, giving you breath, keeping your body functioning, arranging all the unique circumstances in your life. Hashem gave us our awesome Torah that is the deepest source of wisdom, insight and self-help advice in the universe. Torat Emet…the Torah is truth. Our Christian and Muslim friends understand that the Torah is indisputable and so, perhaps reluctantly, they must incorporate it in their own traditions. Torah is the key to our eternity. Every mitzvah is a once in a lifetime chance to make that particular moment holy. Kedoshim Tihiyu…be holy. That’s our mission statement. So don’t run from Hashem. That just doesn’t make sense.
As you leave YULA, you will be responsible for your own nurturing of this relationship. A relationship is as strong as the weakest partner. If I think you are my best friend but you only call me back once a month, we have a once a month relationship. God loves us so much that we always will be the weakest partner! You have learned with your rabbis and teachers a profound 3000 year old system to keep this relationship on fire. Are you sick of the Sh’moneh Esrai? From now on, no one is going to make you do it. Find those tefillin annoying? Well, now you can just leave them in the bag if you so choose. Or you can choose life. You can choose to bring Hashem into your every day with a blessing over everything that goes in your mouth. You can act as Hashem’s partner in creating the world by perceiving the impact you have in your heartfelt tefilah. You can hear Hashem’s patient voice in every word of Torah that you learn. You can touch everyone you meet by serving as an example of what it means to be a fully invested Jew. Hashem is ready to make miracles for you, to make your life amazing, to hear your requests in your prayers and make your dreams come true.
Observant Jews live in a parallel universe. We are totally engrossed in the material world and yet we are removed, separate, spiritual. You have learned techniques in school and from your parents to maximize both worlds. Modern Orthodox Jews have a particularly challenging path: we don’t throw away all connections with secular culture and the internet. We understand that we have to be “in the world” in order to be a light unto nations. Whether you realize it or not, you are all Jewish leaders! People will see how you act and judge all Jews accordingly. You’ll be explaining your dietary habits, your kippah, why you have to leave early on Fridays. It’s not easy to walk on this tightrope and maintain your footing. In college the balance gets even trickier with your academic mentors preaching secularism and even anti-Israel sentiments. That’s why today is a big deal. Your parents have spent a small fortune to put you in an environment like YULA, one that has empowered you with our eternal traditions to keep you on track.
Here’s another reason why today is a big deal. Look around you at your graduating class. These people are your brothers and sisters. You have a lifelong connection with one another, a deeper bond than you’ll make with your future college buddies and business peers. All those tough classes and school trips and demanding teachers and issues with the administration have served as the glue to connect you. What you have with each other is real achdut (brother/sisterhood.) And achdut is priceless. We learn that our Temple was destroyed because of lack of achdut. And the restoration of achdut brings us closer to our redemption. Invest in your YULA friends. Treasure them. Count on them. Some of your peers left YULA early to go straight to City College or wherever. They missed out on this opportunity. Take a moment to be grateful for the circumstances that allowed you to make it all the way. You got the real diploma and not a GED. Most importantly, you got achdut.
Finally, I urge you to keep your Judaism fresh. Judaism is a lot of work. It can get tiring and repetitive. It can be expensive! If you keep a minimum daily requirement in your lives, like morning tefilah, learning parsha shavua and kashrut, you’ll know when you are losing it. You have spent the past twelve years growing into a superstar YULA graduate. Don’t lose it! If you can’t find the motivation inside, do it for the wrong reasons. Do it for your parents. Do it for your rabbis and teachers. Do it for your unborn children. Do it for the 6 million. Even if you’re not positive that God exists, do it just in case God does exist! You’ve probably heard the Gemara, “lo lishma ba lishma” (not for it’s own sake become for it’s own sake.) In other words, Just do it!
So, my friends, thanks for your attention. Please continue to give your parents and teachers nachas. Choose life. Live to the fullest. Be true to yourself. Learn to balance “you-ish” AND Jewish. That is the unbeatable combination that will guarantee you success in every part of your life. The YULA Class of 2015 is a stunning, shining group of remarkable young people that will make the world a better place. This world needs your help in a big way. Stand proudly, YULA graduates, and know that you carry with you the hope of your families, the hope of the Nation of Israel and a brighter future for all mankind.