The following is the letter I wrote to Heichal HaTorah’s graduating Class of 2020 for their yearbook:
No, that’s not a typo. That’s my message to you, dear graduates.
Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm, noted that it is commonly believed that the difference between a hero and a coward is that the coward is beset by fear, while the hero is not afraid. But this is incorrect.
In truth, both the hero and the coward may be intimidated and frightened by the prospects of the unknown they are facing. The difference is, however, that the coward flees from the source of his fear, while the hero is propelled forward despite his fear. The coward seeks the path of least resistance, while the hero relentlessly readies himself for a long arduous journey.
All of us in Yeshiva – the hanhalah, the rebbeim, and the teachers – have invested tremendously into helping you externalize the individual greatness you each possess. As you continue to traverse the roads of life, you will inevitably encounter resistance and struggles. Your most important asset is your inner greatness. But you have to believe in yourself and have the courage to stay the course.
In Parshas Sh’lach, Rashi notes that when Moshe dispatched the spies, they were worthy of the mission. The Midrash states that Hashem Himself had vouched for the worthiness of each of the spies. If so, what caused them to sin so egregiously?
Rav Yechezkel Abramsky zt”l, the author of the Chazon Yechezkel, explains that there are individuals who achieve a level of greatness and maintain those levels as long as they remain in pure surroundings, surrounded by people of stature. However, as soon as they leave those surroundings, they fall prey to negative influences. A person leaving a holy environment must be wary and conscientious of the danger surrounding him, and he must be m’chazeik himself to maintain his level.
When the M’raglim departed, they were indeed holy men of stature. But once they had left the spiritually protected environment of Moshe and Aharon, they stumbled spiritually and disaster ensued.
Rav Mendel Kaplan zt”l once quipped that people think a yeshivah is like a gas station, where you fill up so you can proceed. But in truth, a yeshivah is a gymnasium. During your time there, you have to work out your spiritual muscles!
A rebbe of mine was a talmid of the Philadelphia Yeshiva for over a decade. When he was leaving to move to an out-of-town community, he went to say farewell to his rosh yeshivah, Rav Elya Svei zt”l. Rav Elya shook his hand warmly and said, “Now we will see what we really taught you!” At first my rebbe was insulted: Only now would they see what they taught him? But with time he understood that the greatest challenge is whether one can live by all the values he learned, even outside the spiritual confines of yeshivah.
David HaMelech expressed this idea in T’hilim: “Go, my sons, listen to me, the fear of Hashem I will teach.” His goal was to teach his sons how to be G-d-fearing when they are going, i.e. leaving him, and stepping into the challenges of society.
My friends, now is the time when we will see how much you have learned and grown at Heichal.
Never fear the road ahead, because Hashem is with you and rooting for your success. And we will do our utmost to remain there for you, as well. Please maintain that connection.
Be daring, courageous, and never lose sight and perspective of your ultimate goals and aspirations.
Dare, Graduates - dare!