Class of 2016 Commencement Address

Class of 2016,

I would like to talk to you about “WHY”. Of the traditional journalistic questions (Who, What, When, Where, and Why), WHY is by far the most central, most complex, and the most important.

When I tell you a story, the facts, even if they are complex and detailed, are fairly straightforward. For example, let’s take the story we read this week about B’nei Yisrael, who receive the miracle of Manna on a daily basis in the desert, and are sustained by magic food from heaven. We learn that it isn’t long before they begin to complain; to feel a craving for meat, and to begin to publicly cry out for a return to their days as slaves in Egypt. We know who, we know what happened, we know when (roughly), and we know where (roughly).

All the beauty, complexity, and meaning to be mined from that story lies in the WHY. Why did they miss slavery? Why did they complain? Why didn’t they understand the miraculous nature of their sustenance and why weren’t they fulfilled or impressed by it? The answers to these questions include universal aspects of human nature, and we only learn about them when we ask “Why”.

Jewish tradition understands the power of asking why, and it is both a privilege and a burden to inherit this tradition, and to wield this powerful question in your own life. Our centuries and millennia of accumulated knowledge tell us that we can’t stand idly by – it is upon us to look at the world with our eyes open and ask difficult questions.

As I’m sure you already know, WHY is the most challenging question a child can ask a parent, or teacher. It is the central question underlying most if not all of the revolutions, innovations, inventions, and revolts in human history.

The secret that not everyone understands about WHY, however, is that it isn’t always a question – it can also be a statement. For example, when Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about his dream of justice and equality for every citizen in our country, he wasn’t asking a question – he was describing a WHY – his central WHY. He was compelling because he knew his own WHY inside and out, and was an absolute genius at communicating it to other people.

Knowing your own core WHY is not particularly easy. In fact, it is the work of growing into an adult that you are currently engaged in, and you will continue to hammer away at it for at least the next few years if not your whole lives. Others will also challenge your WHY, but in the words of that great poet of our times, Taylor Swift, haters gonna hate – just shake it off.

As a young child, you might ask WHY do we light the candles on Shabbat, and I might say because Hashem told us to, and that’s true. As a young adult, your own answer to that question could branch off into any number of directions – because Hashem told us to, because my people do it, because it connects me to my parents, because I want to pass the tradition to my children someday, because it feels good. All true. All WHY. All different.

So the advice that I would like to offer you, Talmidim Yekarim (precious students) as you leave Gesher, is simply to keep on asking why – never stop. Ask your parents why, ask your teachers why, ask the whole word why! But most importantly, ask yourself and ask each other.

In fact, if you want to peel away the surface layers of an answer quickly, find a partner, ask a real question, and then ask why seven times. If you are both patient, you will find a core belief under all those questions that might surprise both of you. When you understand your own why, the other questions begin to fall into place.

So I wish you Mazal Tov, Talmidei Gesher, but I know that you don’t need it. You have everything you need. Congratulations on your achievement – enjoy this special moment, and come back and visit!