Class of ‘22, there is no doubt what the highlight of my first year at GOA has been: Getting to know your class. Starting on senior Shabbaton and continuing during Neshama when I spent a week traveling with you in Israel–this has given me a sense of purpose and pleasure in my work. You are an impressive group–smart and talented, resilient and resourceful, compassionate and kind. After a fun week celebrating Shushan Purim and Shabbat in Jerusalem, we traveled to Gush Etzion for the Many Faces program. There we met Jewish settlers, Palestinian activists, peace makers… and trouble makers. And you were right there in the mix, debating weighty matters of Israel’s past, present and future. I was impressed, and proud of you.
We also had some less weighty debates. One time I wandered the bus and found myself dragged into an argument about the relative merits of… Apple Music and Spotify. I tipped my hand, and soon had my first two, and only two, Spotify playlist followers. Hannah Lancman and Scoop may already know that I’ve been listening to a lot of Jon Batiste lately.
Do you know Jon Batiste–the great pianist, composer and band leader of Stay Human? Perhaps you heard his soundtrack from Pixar’s film “Soul,” or have caught him accompanying Stephen Colbert each night on the Late Show. You may have heard that Jon Batiste won the Grammy for “We Are,” the best album of 2021. He is from New Orleans, where he inherited a rich musical tradition from his family and his high school, before moving to NYC and attending Juilliard. A musical prodigy, he is deeply rooted in the traditions of his home, and yet spectacularly adept at creating new art with universal appeal.
The thing that I love about Jon Batiste, and that I think is especially salient for you, the GOA Class of 2022, is that ability to be deeply rooted in your own particular culture, community and religion, while keeping your heart open to the diverse voices all around you. The world has much to teach you, and you have much to teach in return. First message-stay rooted, stay proud, but also stay open and curious.
How do you retain that rootedness as you journey forth into the broader world? In his song, “Tell the Truth,” Batiste remembers his Daddy telling him,
Before you go off, better know the game.
He said, Tell it like it is, tell the truth. Live how you live, I’m talking to you,
When you’re doing what you do, just tell the truth.
Tell it like it is, love how you live
When you’re doing what you do, just tell the truth.
Just tell the truth. That’s what we–your teachers, family and friends want for all of you, to live with integrity, pride, and joy. Or as Batiste puts it: Tell it like it is, love how you live / When you’re doing what you do, just tell the truth. [.43-1:12]
Truth sounds so simple, doesn’t it? In Hebrew, as you know, truth is אמת
. Think about those three letters, Aleph–the first letter of our Hebrew alphabet, Tav, the very last letter, and Mem, right there in the middle, if you count the final forms. The rabbis noticed how spread out the letters of Emet are, in contrast to its opposite, its nemesis Sheker, which means falsehood. Those letters, Shin, Kuf, and Reish, well, they’re all clustered together at the end of the alphabet.
In a late Midrash about the Hebrew letters attributed to Rabbi Akiva, we ask, “Why is it that the letters of Emet are scattered far apart, while the letters of Sheker are clustered together?
אוצר מדרשים (אייזנשטיין) עקיבא, רבי עמוד 428
ומפני מה אותיות של אמת מפוזרים זו מזו ואותיות של שקר מוקפין זו על גב זו מפני שאמת קשה לעשותו והשקר עומד אחר האוזן, כדתניא דבי רבי ישמעאל בא ליטמא פותחין לו בא ליטהר מסייעין לו.
Why are the letters of truth scattered wide, while the letters of falsehood are clustered? Because truth is difficult to establish, while falsehood can be spread by simple whispers. It literally lurks behind your ear. You must search far for truth; the easy alternative, lies big and small, is always in reach. Shockingly we have heard obscene falsehoods and conspiracy theories about the massacre this week in Uvalde, TX, mirroring those told ten years ago after Sandy Hook.
Falsehood is a powerful tool of hatred; truth, we learn from Rabbi Hanina in the Talmud (Yoma 69b), is the seal of the Holy One: אמר רב חנינא, שמע מינה: חותמו של הקדוש ברוך הוא אמת
Truth may be difficult to ascertain, but once established it is very stable. Let’s look again at the letters. Alef–like a warrior pose in yoga ; Mem–like a linebacker crouched and ready for the snap; Tav–like the third position in ballet. These are stable letters, each standing on two feet, and then some. That’s why we say that the Torah is אמת ויציב
, true and stable. In contrast, the letters of Sheker, of falsehood, all stand on one leg, and are off balance as well. Why? Again, the Midrash of Rabbi Akiva:
ומפני מה אותיות של אמת בשתי רגלים ואותיות של שקר ברגל אחת עומדין, שכל העושה אמת הרי קיים לעולם ונוחל העוה"ב ואינו ממעט בעוה"ז שנאמר כי שבע יפול צדיק וקם וגו' (משלי כ"ד), ושקר אינו מתקיים לעולם שנאמר ורשעים יכשלו ברעה (שם /משלי כ"ד/).
Because in the end, a person who stands for truth will stand strong forever–in this world and in the world to come. Not so those who build on a foundation of lies. Eventually the ruse is up, the truth will out.
Now, I admit, things do not always seem this way. Our society often rewards big talk, bold lies, whatever claim can garner fame. Don’t be seduced. Don’t reflexively like, share and retweet whatever you read. Ask critical questions, consider motivations, stop to think about the impact of an iffy claim. Search as far and wide as you need to discern the truth.
This week in the haftarah for Behukotai, Jeremiah says that God is חוקר לב ובוחן כליות
, able to probe the heart, to search the mind. We are not God, but we can seek to emulate God’s ways, searching our own thoughts and emotions, and those of people around us, looking for truth, taking responsibility, acting with empathy and building a just and righteous world.
Finally, remember that there are many crowns in the world. There is the crown of Torah, כתר תורה, then the crown of power, כתר מלכות, and also the crown of fame, כתר כהונה, but the greatest crown of them all is the crown of a good name, וכתר שם טוב עולה על גביהן. You all have good names–the names your parents bestowed on you, the names you have established for yourselves. Carry those names forward with pride and integrity. We, the teachers, staff, board and families of GOA are very proud of you. And that is why I am so pleased to wear a special hat inscribed with your names–a GOA Keter Shem Tov, a crown to celebrate your accomplishments and to anticipate your bright futures. Mazal tov, seniors–now Tell it like it is, love how you live / When you’re doing what you do, just tell the truth. [.43-1:12]