The Commencement Speech I Want to Give


Your birth was your defining moment, yet you didn’t ask to be born at all, much less to the family you were born into. You didn’t get a say in the city (I don’t know how I got Pittsburgh; I’m not interested in sports). Or the times. (If you’re Jewish, you’ve probably learned by now that the Jewish nation has had more bad times than good times–and that history repeats itself. Sorry, I know this is supposed to be upbeat.)

Appearances — yours and everyone else’s–probably matter a lot to you now, but you’ll be surprised how, unless you go under the surgeon’s knife, the way you look will ultimately be a reflection of what’s going on inside of you. And, if you were lucky enough to be the smartest kid in the class, all I can say to you is that nobody’s smart in everything and success in the real world depends on more than book knowledge. (Now you know I wasn’t the smartest kid in the class.)

For many, many years, my graduation from high school was the happiest day of my life. Everything was ahead of me; I hadn’t yet made one choice along the new and open road to self-discovery. I thought I was free-thinking, but in retrospect, I had already embarked on a clear path, one where happiness was synonymous with success in the material world. If there was more to life than that–and part of me hoped there was because “success” wasn’t guaranteed–it had better be the Answer.

I don’t know what part of “Liberal” or “Arts” caused me to think my college curriculum at the University of Michigan would lead me closer to G-d. My courses were packed with information, but the Answer remained the elephant in the auditorium. (For the record, I steered clear of Jewish Studies, so I can only speculate what I would have learned about G-d there. My “formal” Jewish education in Pittsburgh had been shallow and inert; I couldn’t imagine that G-d wanted to be formally Jewish either.)

I graduated in 1976, with no more answers about life than when I entered in 1973. I listened to my mother who told me I should finish college in three years because I would need to go to graduate school anyway in order to launch my successful career. I listened to her again and got an MBA, but in a turn of events that still surprises me, Judaism ended up becoming my career. I hope I have been successful at it, despite the fact that it has been anything but lucrative.

You’ve also had to listen to your parents. And your teachers. And even your friends. But let’s be honest: Do they really know you? Do they really care about what’s best for you? (I hate to break it to you, but even your parents have an agenda: They prefer that you grow up to be like them.)

Did you ever think about talking to G-d to help guide you in your decision making? If you haven’t learned that He’s right there with you in every detail of your life — and all of existence — you may not have had the best teachers.

The good news is He’s not going anywhere. The bad news is you could be distracted all the days of your life (except maybe the last one) and you won’t think about Him. Whatever you do, don’t let the fact that you didn’t learn about Him in your “real” school stop you from learning about Him on your own. (If you’ve taken Women’s Studies classes, you undoubtedly want to ask why He’s a Him. Don’t worry, there are answers for that, too.)

You will forget much of what you’ve learned in school, if you haven’t already. Learning about your relationship with G-d, on the other hand, will benefit you forever.

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, wrote the following words as the preface to the first English translation of the Tanya in 1962. (The Tanya is the first Chabad Rebbe’s seminal work, written in the late 1700’s, addressing everything you ever wanted to know about the cosmos and your place in it.)

Chassidus in general, and Chabad Chassidus in particular, is an all-embracing world outlook and way of life which sees the Jew’s central purpose as the unifying link between the Creator and Creation.

And there’s lots more where that came from.

I know, I know, “the Creator” is a difficult subject, especially at first. But, just remember, you have a hidden advantage: your soul has already aced the course.

About the Author
Lieba Rudolph, her husband, Zev, and their young family returned to observant Jewish life when they were both over thirty. Now, after spending equal time in both worlds, she shares the joys and challenges of her journey, answering everyone's unasked question: why would anyone normal want to become religious?
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