Dear Brandeis community,
As we prepare to send off our class of 2018, I wanted to share with you the words I shared with them this morning. This will be my last Word of the Week for this year (!), but I will also be writing a final, wrap-up “Word of the Year” letter that will go out soon, so you will hear from me in writing again before we scatter for the summer.
Good morning, welcome parents and loved ones, welcome students and faculty and staff, to the graduation ceremony for The Brandeis School of San Francisco’s class of 2018! In addition to recording this as video for posterity’s sake, we are also recording this for a live podcast—so welcome, as well, Yudcast listeners!
Eighth graders, it is my honor to be the first to address you this morning as graduates, as we mark the passage of your years here at Brandeis, from preschoolers holding tight to your parents’ arms to the confident adolescents standing before us today.
Graduates, I want to talk with you this morning about authenticity. You are growing up in a world of shifting images, “a play of surfaces” as the philosopher Fredric Jameson described postmodernism. We can put on VR goggles and be immersed in worlds that are so lifelike our pulses quicken to them. In the time it takes me to give this speech, 2,000 hours of new video content will be uploaded to YouTube, and there will be 250 million Instagram posts made—though none, I trust, by any of you. That’s five minutes, on just two sites—so much we’ll never see or listen to or read or interact with, accreting unendingly.
In this world of sharing and following, of liking and posing, of portrait lighting on our phones, what does it mean to be authentic, and to be authentically yourself? How do you sift not just through all that information, but through your various selves, to find your truth?
When I was in middle school, much of Judaism felt inauthentic to me. I did not like Hebrew school or studying for my bar mitzvah. I enjoyed being able to wrestle with G-d in my bar mitzvah speech, but beyond that it felt like someone else’s words in my mouth. I think that is partly due to my upbringing—religion was in some ways a battleground in my divorced interfaith family, and so rather than spaces of connection, the texts and rituals felt atomizing, like I could only be part of myself in them.
That changed the spring of my freshman year of high school. My mother took me to a sunrise Easter service at the Greek theater in Berkeley, about a week before I went on a Shabbaton retreat as part of my Jewish youth group Midrasha and joined an orthodox minyan on a hilltop at dawn. Our world’s twilight moments—twilight, by the way, means “two lights,” when the sun and moon mingle—are powerfully spiritual ones for me. In those two ritual spaces I saw overlap rather than conflict and felt a profound sense of connectedness—not just to the world or to these traditions, but to myself. It was the first time the words of the Modeh Ani prayer actually made sense to me—thank you, universe, for returning my soul to me.
I went on from those experiences to study religion in both high school and college, wondering about these spaces of connection. One of the texts that I read in college was the Bagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture compiled around the same time as the Tanakh, 200 BCE or so. There is a line in the Gita that resonated with me then, and that I’ve carried with me since. It says, “It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else's life with perfection.” This feels like such wisdom to me—because yes, your path is your own, not another’s. The words of your songs and your prayers should feel like they are your words. And also, because graduates, let me tell you, imperfection is life. We are none of us perfect, not a single moment of a single day. To pretend otherwise is to argue against our shared humanity.
Live your own destiny imperfectly. Those words felt like permission to be whole. I found a similar permission years later in studying the Pirkei Avot, a collection of Rabbinic aphorisms from the 3rd century CE. Chapter 1.6 reads, “Yehoshua ben Perachiah said: "Make yourself a teacher; acquire a friend; and judge every person favorably."
Make yourself a teacher. That verb is quite clear—it is not find yourself a teacher or seek a teacher. Make yourself a teacher. In that I hear: find your truth and speak it, teach it. The word authentic comes from the Greek, from auto- for self and -hentes for doing or being. To be authentic then is to be yourself. Your authentic path is uniquely yours, just as your truth is, just as what you teach us will be.
Graduates, you have had the opportunity to learn a great deal in your time here at Brandeis. It is my hope that among the math of Google and the art of Chagall you have also found time to consider what from Jewish tradition and your own family traditions resonates with you. I hope you have found your own twilight hours and seen glimmerings of how you might make it all your own. Make Judaism or however you define your spiritual path your own. Make your high school journey your own. Make your own ways to speak your truth. And in so doing, may you be always grounded in that truth, and may that grounding be an anchor in this sea of surfaces.
So, graduates, my wish for you this morning is this:
May your souls forever return to you, whole.
May you make yourself a teacher, for yourself and the world.
May you always remember that here at Brandeis you have a home.
May you teach us imperfectly, and brilliantly, and lead us in that grace toward repair and peace.
Mazel tov, graduates. Keep making us proud.
Wishing you all weekends full of connections and truths, my friends.