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Write your chapter in our great story

Rabbi Berman’s commencement address to YU’s graduating class

To our class of 2021 — congratulations!

You have made it. You have endured a year like no other. You have socially distanced, masked, and been regularly tested. You have lived at home, in dorm rooms, and in Zoom rooms. You have been tried and you have been true. True to our values and true to our mission. As leaders of the world of tomorrow, you have shown resilience, strength, and great character.

Every year graduation is special, but this year is different. It is different because in a year defined by distance and being virtual, we come together today live and in person.

Five weeks ago, when the governor announced that universities could have in-person graduations, we naturally understood the enormous challenge in turning around an event of such scale in such a short amount of time. This truly was a colossal undertaking. And I want to thank our entire team of staff, security, administration, and professionals who have been working day and night to make this happen.

But this is indicative of what Yeshiva University — together with you, our beloved students — has been doing all throughout this year. We have worked together to create a safe, social, educational context in which our professors continue teaching and our students continue studying, enabling our institution and our community to emerge even stronger.

But this graduation is not just special because we are in person. It is special because it represents something bigger. You represent something bigger. You represent hope.

These past weeks have been difficult for us. We have begun to see some old bigotries arise anew — attacks on Jews not just in Tel Aviv, but in Times Square — and an upside down world more readily supportive of a terrorist organization than the only democracy in the Middle East.

But in these tumultuous times, you represent the future. We have confidence in our future because we have confidence in you. You are our hope as the next generation of Jewish heroes and the leaders of tomorrow.

I want to share with you two stories about Jewish heroes to highlight this point.

The first is the story of Esther. She is living in the king’s palace, and her cousin Mordechai insists that she must intercede on the Jews behalf to ward off the Persian king’s decree of annihilation. But Esther initially refuses. Mordechai then beseeches her to rethink her response: “For if you are quiet at this time, then redemption and salvation will come from another place and you and your family’s house will be lost.”

At first glance, there is something perplexing in Mordechai’s response. If, in fact, redemption will come from elsewhere, then why is Esther being threatened by being told that she and her father’s house will be lost?

The answer is that Mordechai did not mean that Esther and her family’s house will be physically destroyed, but that they will be lost — lost to the annals of history.

Mordechai had no doubt that the Jewish people would survive. God’s promise of our survival applied then as it continues to apply during every crisis we face in history. Redemption will come. It always will come. It is not Jewish destiny that is at stake, Mordechai explains to Esther, but your destiny. Esther — you have an opportunity to act, to write your name into the story of the Jewish people. And those who do so always will be remembered.

And throughout history we have seen people who have made that choice. Some people who are with us today — like our Honorary Degree recipient Jason Greenblatt, former White House Middle East Envoy — who, when faced with incredible possibilities of large-scale impact, heard the call of history, responded, and moved history forward.

There are moments in our lives in which we can write ourselves into the story of the Jewish people. We can affix our name and individual destiny onto the arc of Jewish history.

But such moments and aspirations are not just in the halls of the White House or ancient palaces in Persia. They characterize the choices we make every day of our lives.

Because there is a second story I want to share with you.

Ruth, after leaving her homeland and joining her mother-in-law Naomi, is willing to re-marry to reestablish the name of her husband’s family. An offer is extended to the next closest of kin, who is referred to as the Go’el, the redeemer. But this person refuses to marry Ruth and remains anonymous throughout the story. Instead, Boaz marries Ruth, and becomes the Go’el, the redeemer.

This story is different from Esther’s. There are no palaces, no genocidal threat to the entire Jewish people, no great political stakes. Just a relationship between two people during the harvest season.

And the lesson is that each of us has the power to be a redeemer, to be a Go’el, in someone else’s life. And by living your values and impacting those around you, you too become worthy of being named and remembered.

And interestingly it was through this very relationship that palaces were built, the Jewish people were sustained, and the kingdom of David was established on this earth.

In the ancient world, there is a difference between the Jewish and the Greek concepts of a hero. For the Greeks, someone becomes a hero through epic stories of great victories in battle. But the founding story of the Jewish monarchy emerges from a quiet moment, a whispered act of kindness — of being someone else’s hero. That is where the Jewish epic begins.

And this, my dear graduates, is my message for you today. Like Ruth and Boaz, Esther and Mordechai, each of you is a potential Go’el, each in your own way, with your distinct qualities and strengths. At different points in your life, you will have the chance to make a difference. To be an influencer in both very public and very private ways. In grand scales and quiet kindnesses. And my message to you is to seize these moments, be the Go’el.

And your education at Yeshiva University has taught you how.

I have repeated many times this year that this is the most important year of your educational lives, because character is shaped by adversity. None of us had the map that told us how this year would unfold. Think back even earlier to when you started Yeshiva University. Could you ever have imagined the way the world would look today? But while none of us had the map, we did have a compass. For our values are our compass, and even during deep times of uncertainty they give us confidence that we are moving in the right direction. And this is a model for you in the future.

During your years as a student at Yeshiva University, you have grown in the knowledge set and skill set, the competencies and values that will guide you to lead lives of enormous personal and professional success. To be both morally mature and market-ready; to become people of impact. We each do not know the exact arc of our individual stories, what fate and what decisions await you in your lives — but we do know that you have the compass. With your values as your compass, you have the tools to reach your destiny and become the person you were meant to be.

And this is crucial not just for your future but for the future of the Jewish people and our society at large.

Mi la-Hashem elai? Who will stand for and sanctify God’s name in the public square? Who will be the pillars of the Jewish community in the years ahead? Who will serve as a bridge connecting Jews to each other and to their heritage? Who will raise the next generation of children in the teachings of their parents and grandparents? Who will bring our Torah values into this world? Who will rise up against a tide of hate? And who will stand with Israel during its times of need?

You — our Yeshiva University graduates. You are the leaders of tomorrow.

You are the hope we have been waiting for.

And this is your mission — to study, embody, and further our values in your homes, your communities, your workplace, for the Jewish people and for our broader society. In addition to all of your contributions to the world as our future doctors, educators, mental health professionals, computer scientists, entrepreneurs, captains of industry, and religious leaders, you have the opportunity to bring Sinai into your lives. And by bringing Sinai into your lives, you will bring Sinai into the world. This is how you can become the Go’el. This is how we redeem a fractured world.

And this is my blessing to you, my dear students.

May Hashem bless you with good fortune and happiness. May you find joy in your life, love in your heart, and purpose in all that you do. I have been inspired by seeing how you have handled this chapter in your lives, which gives me profound confidence in the way you will write yourselves into the next chapter of the great story of the Jewish people, bringing joy and redemption to those whom you love and to all those around you — simchah li-arzteikha and sasson li-irekha — joy to the cities in which you reside and to our eternal city of Jerusalem; joy to your homes and joy to our homeland.

Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman of Teaneck is the president of Yeshiva University. This is the commencement address he delivered on May 26.

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