The following is a modified version of Rabbi Alter’s graduation speech to the 2021 Moriah graduates:
Graduates, do your parents sometimes talk about what life was like when they were your age? How they had to walk 7 miles to school—at 4:30 every morning—with no shoes, uphill, both ways, in a huge blizzard?
Or even worse than all that, do you really believe them when they tell you that they had no iPhone in eighth grade? No iPhone? Is that really a thing? Can someone live that way?
Well, now you will have your unique stories to tell the next generation. Your graduating year has been a year like no other. Will your children believe you when you tell them the stories, obviously slightly, or maybe even largely, embellished, about being imprisoned by plexiglass, being forced to wear masks all day, or at least when your teachers were looking, living under the constant threat of quarantine, although let’s be honest—I don’t think you hated those quarantines—and receiving a personalized medical exam by Nurse Toby in the form of temperature checks every day?
Adversity is often a catalyst for growth. We have proudly watched as you developed patience, perseverance, fortitude, optimism and other important traits through this challenging period of time.
I would like to take the next few minutes to share one more important lesson that I hope you have learned this past year. Let me begin with a story.
Berachia Hanakdan was a Jewish storyteller who lived in 13th-century France. Often referred to as the Jewish Aesop, he gathered and narrated stories from all over the world.
Sheldon Oberman in his book “Solomon and The Ant” shares one of his stories about a mouse living in the walls of a shul building. One day, while watching a wedding that was taking place in the shul, the mouse decided that she too wished to marry. ”I don’t want to marry another mouse, though,” she told her friends. “Mice are small and weak. I wish to marry a being that is much more powerful.” So she began to ask her friends for advice. “Who is powerful? The sun is powerful,” said other mice. So she climbed to the highest roof in her village and called out to the sun. “You are the most powerful. I would like to marry you.” “No, I am not,” replied the sun. “Every night I disappear. And furthermore, I can be covered at any time by clouds.” “So I will marry the clouds,” yelled the mouse. “Clouds, I would like to marry you as you are incredibly powerful.” “Ha,” laughed the clouds. “I have almost no power. I can’t even move without the wind. I am totally reliant on it.” So the mouse yelled out to the wind, “I would like to marry you. You are the most powerful.” “My power is severely limited,” responded the wind. “I can only blow when nothing stands in my way. As soon as something like a wall stands in my way, I have no power.” “So let me marry the wall,” said the mouse and she asked the wall to marry her. The wall responded, “Why do you mock me and my weakness, mouse?” “How can you be weak?” Asked the mouse. “You can even stop the wind.” The wall answered, “Over many years you mice have dug many holes under me. When it rains, the water pours through the tunnels and washes away the earth. The ground beneath me is collapsing and soon I will be destroyed by you.” Recognizing the truth of these words, the mouse finally realized that it was appropriate for her to marry another mouse. She had no need to look elsewhere and she came to appreciate what she had in her own world.
Human nature is peculiar in this way. We always search elsewhere for things that will make us happy. We tend to turn our attention to that person who we believe has more than us, who we think is more successful than us, or who we think is happier than us. Social media has exacerbated this phenomenon to an extent that it has become dangerous to our social and emotional health. In this sense, we admire Yehoshua and Calev, the heroes of yesterday’s parsha, who overcame negative peer pressure and maintained a positive perspective because it was the right thing to do.
We have all learned an important lesson through this year of COVID: the importance of appreciating what we have, and who we are. This past year, when we missed so much of what we previously considered to be “normal” life, the little things became so much more important.
This lesson is embedded in our traditions in so many ways. Our rituals are, in part, designed to help us appreciate every aspect of life. Brachot heighten our appreciation of the food that we eat and the mitzvot we are about to perform. Holiday rituals focus us on the central themes of each holiday, enhancing our appreciation of them and their impact on our lives.
We recite tefillot every morning that emphasize and highlight our many blessings.
Think about the tefillot you recite every morning. From Modeh Ani, expressing thankfulness to Hashem for every single day of life, to Mah Tovu, celebrating our access to batei knesset, our spiritual centers. From Elokai Neshama, thanking Hashem for the uniqueness of our holy souls, to the Birchot Hashachar series, thanking Hashem for allowing us to walk, for providing us with clothing, for providing us with footwear, or for allowing us the gift of sight.
How profound. Every morning we begin our day with these recitations of our thankfulness for the little things in life. We should never take for granted all of our blessings.
Over the last year we have come to appreciate so many things. I share a few of them:
The important roles that friends and family play, especially in an environment where our social interactions are limited.
The blessing of connecting to loved ones overseas through the usage of technology.
The ability to hug a loved one. Let’s keep the image in our minds of the elderly relative who after a year of distance was finally able to hug their family members.
One that I never thought I would hear from so many of you: the gift of physical presence in school every day.
The ability to live in the most technologically advanced country in the most technologically advanced era in history—where in a matter of a few short months we were able to develop a groundbreaking vaccine to counter this horrible plague.
The gift of living in an era where after 2,000 years of exile we can finally celebrate the existence of the State of Israel, play a historic role in supporting, strengthening and defending it, and note with pride how Israel is at the forefront of technological advances in fighting COVID and vaccinating their entire population.
Research shows that people who recognize and show gratitude for all the good in their lives are healthier, happier, build stronger relationships, are better at dealing with adversity, and even enjoy their positive experiences in a more profound fashion.
Graduates: We are very proud of you. We have watched you learn, grow and thrive over the years and we have had the opportunity to observe the unique strengths and character traits that each and every one of you possess. We know that you will all thrive as you continue on the next steps of your educational journey.
As you start the next phase of your lives, always stop to reflect and appreciate the many blessings that you have every single day. If you can master this lesson and take it to heart, your lives will be far more fulfilled, enriched and meaningful. I know that we will continue to watch your trajectory as you soar to great heights. And we at Moriah will appreciate the blessings that each and every one of you brought to our school community, enriching it by your presence and personalities.
On behalf of all your administrators and teachers I want to wish you a mazel tov and let you know how proud we are to henceforth call each and every one of you a proud Moriah alumnus.
Rabbi Daniel Alter is head of school at The Moriah School.