Good afternoon. Welcome faculty, administration, members of the board of trustees, families and beloved friends of our graduates, and – of course – I know that all of you will join me in welcoming the Heschel Class of 2019.
I am honored to stand here today as our Head of School and also as a very proud parent of one of our graduates.
It is an incredible privilege, dear graduates, to say mazal tov on all that you have achieved to reach this spectacular moment. We all know how hard you worked to get here. Today we are filled with appreciation and gratitude: for your enthusiasm, your engagement, your energy, your strong opinions, and for all you have done to shape our school over the past years and leave your stamp on Heschel.
And, of course, mazal tov to parents, family members, and friends for reaching this incredible moment together. Thank you all for being here today. And thank you for always being our partners. On a personal note, it has been a true blessing for Jesse and me to raise our children together with you and it is a gift to celebrate together today.
A special mazal tov and thank you to our magnificent faculty, administration, and staff. Your commitment, passion, wisdom, patience, and sense of humor brought us here today. It is a privilege and a pleasure to count myself as one of your colleagues and I thank you for all you have done to lead these amazing graduates to this stage.
Rumor has it that there has been some speculation about whether, as a Head of School and a mom, I will make it through this speech or collapse hopelessly in a puddle of emotional tears. And let’s be honest: who knows?! The jury is definitely out.
Members of this very large and public jury: You will all get to find out within the next few minutes.
Now, let’s be clear: few public speakers are excited to get up with the uncertainty of whether they will laugh or cry. I am no exception. And so this is a challenge. Like all speakers, I would like to be in total control of this presentation. But - so it goes! -- that is not in the cards for me today. SO, as a second-best option, being an educator, I will try to turn this into a teachable moment as you, members of the Class of 2019, leave Heschel and head out into the world.
So, in that spirit, here’s what I hope you remember as you leave our walls: You are not always going to feel in control. You will have those moments when you don’t know what’s going to happen next; when the future or even the present feels uncertain; when you’re not sure whether you are going to laugh or cry. And (here’s the important part!) that is okay. Indeed, it’s more than okay; it’s IDEAL.
Rabbi Heschel once reflected on what it means to be human. He observed: “What keeps me alive -- spiritually, emotionally, intellectually -- is my ability to be surprised.”
Listen again: “What keeps me alive -- spiritually, emotionally, intellectually -- is my ability to be surprised.”
Breathe deep and take that in. It’s counter-cultural. We live in a culture that prizes control. We try to plan. Indeed, throughout high school, we have tried to teach you to plan. And you should plan. We try to choose our words carefully. We have certainly tried to teach you to choose your words carefully. And you should keep doing that. We strive to be in control. And that’s great. Make good, deliberate decisions, work hard, fight for what you believe in. Set goals and make plans to achieve the things you want to achieve.
AND, plan though you may, you’re not always in total control. So embrace your ability to be surprised and look for those surprises! Some things are unplanned or unplannable. Sometimes we are overcome by emotion and we just cry. Sometimes we find ourselves laughing hysterically. Sometimes things don’t turn out the way we anticipated. Sometimes opportunities pop up out of nowhere.
Just think about the run of parshiot at the beginning of sefer bamidbar, the book of the Torah that we start reading this shabbat. The opening parshiot are all about planning and control: all about an elaborate census and lots and lots of orderly and ordering rules. And then comes total craziness: spies telling elaborate lies; the ground opening up and swallowing people whole; and, of course (wait for it!), a talking donkey.
Surprises happen. No matter how much you plan. And when they happen -- and, believe me, they will -- remember Rabbi Heschel’s words and consider those moments core to your very humanity.
And, actually, it’s more than that. Because far from thinking of the unexpected surprises as disempowering (and, believe me, I know that it’s easy to feel that way), Rabbi Heschel considered those moments deeply empowering. Here are his words to carry with you:
“I’m surprised every morning that I see the sun shine again. When I see an act of evil, I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere -- I am still surprised! That is why I’m against it; it’s why I can fight against it. We must learn how to be surprised.”
That, my dear graduates, that’s the point: Don’t just wait for or fear the uncontrollable moments when you are surprised, LEARN to be surprised.
Learn to be surprised in ways that make you appreciate the things you might otherwise take for granted: the sun each morning, the family and friends that support you, the daily activities that nurture you.
Learn to be surprised so that you never stop fighting for the things that you believe in.
Learn to be surprised so that you never get used to violence or war or cruelty.
Learn to always be surprised by injustice.
And use that sense of surprise as a call to action. You have the power to make change. You have tools that you can control and you should use them! As a wise group of seniors once said: Commit to something!
Make plans to use the skills you have to improve some corner of our broken world. You have the right to vote -- use it. Don’t stop trying to choose your words with care. And don’t stop making plans to fulfill your dreams.
AND when you confront the most surprising talking donkey, or when you suddenly laugh unexpectedly, or cry when you just wish you could control it…. Don’t forget to embrace and appreciate those humanizing moments.
And most importantly, look around today.
My blessing for you is that your plans allow you to follow your dreams and that you will find great humanity in your moments of surprise. And, in both the moments when you feel in control and in those moments of profound surprise, remember that we will be there for you: to laugh with you, to cry with you, and (from where ever we are, even if we are no longer physically by your side) to appreciate with you every morning that the sun is shining again.
Mazal tov class of 2019. Thank you for teaching all of us to be surprised in so many magical ways and congratulations on reaching this incredible moment.