April 13, 2024
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April 13, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

By Rabbi Daniel Alter

Editor’s note: This is Rabbi Alter’s graduation speech to the Moriah graduates of 2023.

Esteemed faculty, parents and family members—and most importantly—the recipients of our attention tonight, our students. You have spent most of your life as Moriah students. That title may no longer be appropriate; as of tonight, you are Moriah alumni. But I would like to suggest a different, more appropriate title. You are now Moriah alumni students. For you never graduate from being a student. Rather, you enter the next stages of your lives as passionate, articulate and curious students. While at Moriah, you mastered many forms of knowledge and skills, you developed proper middot, and you began to understand your role in the world in which we live—in society and among the Jewish people. You also learned that the more you learn, the more you understand how much more there is to learn.

When Chazal describes a great scholar, they deliberately refer to him as a talmid chacham—a brilliant student—in recognition that to live life fully is to always be learning. This is the message I leave with you tonight. Be a student, always!

First and foremost, be a student of Torah. Torah is our guidepost—our manual towards living a meaningful life based on Jewish values. The emphasis we have always placed on Torah study—as a people—is the primary reason that our culture has always valued learning.

From the day that your parents enrolled you as a young child in Moriah, they were fulfilling the basic Torah precept of ‘veshinantam levanecha’—the obligation to teach our children Torah—because your parents recognize the centrality of this value.

We are known as ‘people of the book.’ This term—which actually originates from early Islam’s description of Jews—has come to celebrate our relationship with the books of Torah and the centrality of Torah study in our lives.

In Gemara Brachot (61b), Rabbi Akiva describes a Jew without Torah as ‘a fish without water.’

Professor Harry Wolfson—a former chair of the Judaic studies program—at Harvard, when asked what makes the Jewish people unique, once said, ‘I think we are the only people who when we drop a book, we pick it up and kiss it.’

According to Guinness World Records, (1995) the Tanach is the best selling book of all time.

At their tekes hashbaah—swearing-in ceremony, IDF soldiers receive their gun and their Tanach.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, argues that, ‘The Egyptians built pyramids, the Greeks built temples, the Romans built amphitheaters. Jews built schools. They knew that to defend a country, you need an army, but to defend a civilization, you need education. So, Jews became the people whose heroes were teachers, whose citadels were schools and whose passion was study and the life of the mind.’ All of these notions illustrate the centrality of learning Torah.

 

Graduates, Be Students of Torah

Be a student of the humanities—the branches of knowledge that teach us about the human being and the human condition, human values and the human spirit. Study of the humanities helps us understand and interpret the human experience as individuals and societies. We develop wisdom, empathy and a deeper understanding of our own and others values through study of the humanities.

When you study great literature you expand your ability to think deeply about the world, to understand other cultures, temperaments or viewpoints and to develop a worldview that is inspired by all that you have learned. You develop the strength and self-confidence to engage with views and ideologies that are not in line with your values, and to advocate for and champion your people, your values and your community. This is especially important in an era where simplistic memes are used to purportedly illuminate deeper meaning—where many express themselves publicly with brief tweets about complex topics, and where interactions with society are perceived to take place through posting of pictures throughout the day.

Clive Staples Lewis describes the role literature can play in our lives. ‘Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.’

 

Graduates, Be Students Of Great Literature

History is another of the humanities. I find the study of history to be pointedly relevant and critical to our era—ironically, because of the plethora of information at our fingertips today.

The Torah tells us:

זְכֹר֙ יְמ֣וֹת עוֹלָ֔ם בִּ֖ינוּ שְׁנ֣וֹת דֹּר־וָדֹ֑ר

‘Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past … ’

The historian, Jon Meachem, writes that, ‘To know what has come before is to be armed against despair.’ I would suggest that one is also armed against hyperbole and falsity.

To those who argue that we live in the most divided time in American history, the historian reminds them of the divisions caused by the Vietnam war, or the Civil war which resulted in the deaths of 620,000 Americans. To those who argue that we live in the most antisemitic time in American history, the historian reminds them of the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan in the 20s, when its membership included 11 United States governors and 16 United States senators, or the attempt by General Grant in 1682 to kick Jews out of a large swath of the United States. To those who argue that this coming election is the most important in our history, the historian reminds us that they said the same thing four years ago, and four years prior to that, as well as four years prior to that election.

Study of history gives us perspective and a wider lens with which to view our current realities.

 

Graduates, Be Students of History

Be a student of Hebrew … The study of Hebrew language has always been critical to the Jewish people. Our most important texts are in Hebrew and Aramaic; a language that is closely-related to Hebrew. As such, access to the wisdom of thousands of years of Torah writings is accessible only to those who are Hebrew proficient.

Additionally, there is a religious imperative to teach our children Hebrew. The Sifrei in Parshat Eikev—quoted by Rashi—argues that parents are obligated to teach their children Torah and to teach them Hebrew language.

Finally, with the miraculous creation of the modern state of Israel, our people realized a vision that we dreamed about for 2,000 years: Hebrew once again became a living language; spoken in the bank, at the supermarket, in the chambers of the Supreme Court and in the halls of universities and yeshivot. Your ability to speak Hebrew will connect you to the vibrancy, dynamism and spirituality of Israeli culture.

 

Graduates, Be Students of Hebrew

Science helps us understand the world around us and appreciate the wonders of God’s creation. Human progress in so many fields has been led by scientific exploration and scientific breakthroughs and our world is a radically better place because of it. But science is meaningful, even to those who won’t discover a new drug or medical procedure. Science helps provide us with a way of thinking, encourages us to problem solve, to ask good questions and figure out how to find good answers. Science encourages us to seek the truth.

 

Graduates, Be Students of Science

There are many more disciplines that I could discuss here, but I think you get my point…

Benjamin Franklin once said that an investment in knowledge pays the best interest. So I encourage you—our newly-minted Moriah alumni students—to pick up seforim and books every day of your lives. Continue to learn and grow, and our bracha to you as you move to the next stages of your lives is that you live up to the desire to become a talmid chacham or talmida chachama—holding a lifelong commitment to learning, curious about the world and eager to learn more about it every day.


Rabbi Daniel Alter is head of school at The Moriah School in Englewood. The Moriah School is one of the nation’s premier Jewish day schools, educating over 600 students from across Bergen County. For more information, visit www.moriahschool.org.

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