Congratulations, graduates!

Last Thursday evening I attended my nephew Chananya’s yeshivah (Jewish seminary) high school graduation. As I sat watching the proceedings, I thought to myself, what if I had been the commencement speaker? What would I say? Every year at this time, the news shows clips of commencement speeches by actors and politicians and celebrities, et cetera, giving advice and encouragement to the graduates. I have also heard my share of graduation speeches. Some have been serious, others funny, and others boring or completely irrelevant. So had the headmaster invited me to speak, how would I inspire the young men and women? Hmmm. (Imagine those wavy lines you see on TV when a show transitions into a dream sequence.)

Rabbis and teachers, parents, family members and friends, and most importantly, graduates, Mazal Tov to you all! Class of 2015, you did it! Yes you did. And while over the years some of us were convinced you would never amount to anything at all, you did earn the piece of paper that in and of itself means… pretty much nothing. I’m kidding.

Graduating from high school is an achievement, and we are very proud of you, but you know there is still a long way to go, and as you go on to more schooling and you will, more exams, tougher ones, lie ahead of you. And life’s tests, many times very difficult and unfair are also down the road, that is if you haven’t already suffered a few, and I know some of you, sadly, have.

But you see, that’s why we celebrate today. Because everyone needs to grab the good – like this good, this achievement – when the good comes, to make it easier to endure the bad. And because you have proven to yourself that you can persevere. That you can get through twelve years of people cramming all kinds of mishigas (nonsense) into your brain while you have had to withstand the mishigas from your schools, and from your parents, and from others along the way.

My nephew Chananya and yours truly
My nephew Chananya and yours truly

Dear graduates, what more can I tell you that will be of any value to you before you forget it within two minutes of this speech being over, that is if you are even listening? I see more than a few cell phones on. Parents, you too. Rabbi!

Well, as I was preparing these words I thought, how can I say what I think and what you should think without repeating the same overused clichés we always hear at graduation ceremonies? I mean, geez, every time I hear them, I want to throw up. Don’t you? Well, here goes, and I apologize in advance.

Class of 2015, you are the future. Yeah, yeah, right. The future what? Who knows. One or two of you may even get thrown in jail someday. Hey, people, it happens. Statistically, all kinds of things happen to all kinds of people and I can tell you that I know of at least one guy from my class who ended up behind bars for doing something not so nice. So maybe I should say, don’t do anything that will put you in jail. Shlomo Hamelech, King Solomon, said in Mishlei, Proverbs: “A wise son makes his father happy, but a foolish son is the grief of his mother.” Don’t make your lovely mother cry for the wrong reasons. She has already put up with enough.

Be true to yourself. Ha! Good luck with that. As long as you work for someone else, you probably won’t be able to do that. So better yet, if you can, even if you eventually enter a field within which one generally is in a supporting subordinate role, try to get out on your own, at least in some small way. And not just you future lawyers and doctors, but even you future teachers and plumbers and scientists and salesmen and engineers and soldiers and homemakers and contractors and accountants and secretaries and nurses and programmers and whatever else.

Learn to depend on yourself and not others. And that is not a graduation speech cliché I don’t think, but hopefully one day will be, because it is important to hear it again and again and again. I don’t want to sound jaded, but unless your family is loaded and you are always spoiled, or you work for daddy or your favorite uncle Yankel who adores you, you may end up with a lousy boss in a lousy job. So learn as much as you can so that your goal can be, if not to completely get away from being a small picked-on cog in a big machine, to have your own little machine and maybe a big machine someday, that makes you happy.

You will make others happy, and you should, but you need to make yourselves happy too. Don’t wait for someone to do that for you. Because happiness is really what it is all about. Be happy, you good-for-nothing bums.

And by the way, that reminds me. When I was finishing eighth grade and it was time to choose my high school, my parents weighed the pros and cons in a very meticulous and thoughtful way. My mother simply said, “If you go to that yeshiva high school, you will end up a bum on the street.” That’s true, she said that. My father of course didn’t say anything, because my mother wouldn’t let him. So it was decided that I attend what many considered the higher level, more advanced yeshiva. Too bad your own parents didn’t do the same for you.

Just kidding, Rabbi, just kidding. Still happy you invited me to speak?

Graduates, follow your dreams. I tell you what. Why don’t you follow my dreams? See, I dream of a world where you can eat pizza all day long and not get fat. I mean, who doesn’t? So how about you knuckleheads give back a little to those of us who tolerated you to this point? Many of us here are, or will be, burdened by hypertension – much of it caused by you – and diabetes and arthritis and depression and cancers and diseases that rob us not just of our physical health but of our mental health as well.

We breathe lousy air, have to ration our water, and there are too many hungry children, and uneducated children out there. The world is in bad shape and people need help. Also, while trying to make things better for us and for you, we have dealt with useless bureaucracies, and worthless government officials and agencies. I could go on and on.

Graduates, while you were goofing around for the last 18 years, we have had to put up with so much garbage. You owe us, you ungrateful slobs. Plenty. So as at least some of you look to become filthy, disgusting rich, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that – in fact, I applaud those of you with capitalist ambitions, after all that is one of the best things about America – fix some of this crap. If not for us, then for you and your own future families, and for your global community. Know that Shlomo Hamelech also said in Mishlei: “A good name is rather to be chosen over great riches, and loving favor over silver and gold.” Of course he lived in a palace and had a thousand wives. But you get what I’m saying.

In all seriousness, by the way, I do want to commend those of you, who have devoted so much of your free time over your high school years to do laudable volunteer work. I know this from my own nephew’s activities, specifically his work with Yachad, an organization dedicated to helping special needs kids and adults. I am so proud of you, Chananya.

Young ladies and gentlemen, you will make choices. As I have, and all of us older and wiser, well, to a degree wiser, have done, we have made choices by doing things and not doing things. I ask you, I implore you, to think ahead as you live for today. Oh yuck, another couple clichés. But really, think about your actions and inactions and where they will leave you five and ten and thirty and fifty years from now. Your parents paid a lot of money for you to attend this fine yeshiva, to learn the right values, so some years from now, don’t make them feel like they flushed their hard-earned bucks down the toilet.

Graduates, with whatever you do and whatever you become, know that you represent Klal Yisroel, the whole Jewish community, and your community at large in this great, blessed country. Never forget your spiritual home, if not your future home, Eretz Yisroel, the Land of Israel, and its eternal, undivided capital, all of ours’ spiritual capital, Yerushalayim, Jerusalem.

Finally, Class of 2015, you go on to your next challenges, armed by your Rabbeyim’s (Rabbis’) and teachers’ wisdom, and shielded by your families’ and friends’ love and devotion. No matter how tough things may get – and there will be the hard with the easy, but hopefully much, much more of the easy – wherever each of you ends up, within close proximity of home or on the other side of the world, be proud and be comforted, because you carry your father’s name and your mother’s heart with you. You are the better of us, and we, all of us who mentored you in some way, tried our very best. So my dear, dear graduates, please, for God’s sake, don’t screw this up.

Once again, Mazal Tov to you all! And thank you.

About the Author
Shia Altman who hails from Baltimore, MD, now lives in Los Angeles. His Jewish studies, aerospace, and business and marketing background includes a BA from the University of Maryland and an MBA from the University of Baltimore. When not dabbling in Internet Marketing, Shia tutors Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and Judaic and Biblical Studies to both young and old.
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