Let There Be Light: President Joel’s Commencement Address

May 20, 2004 — Seventy two years ago, Dr. Bernard Revel, Yeshiva’s first president, stood before the first graduating class of Yeshiva College, and sent them forth in a complex world, with timely and timeless words: He said “You, our first graduates, are going forth into a world that is today governed by conflict, fear, and distrust. Modern civilization is at a spiritual crossroads. We stand upon the brink of an epoch. We grope in the dark and stumble. Whether it is the twilight before a greater darkness, or the twilight before the approaching dawn, many have proclaimed, but none can truly tell. In these days what the world needs most is …a return to ultimate values of life, of the worth of spiritual and ethical truth.”

Today, the fourth president of Yeshiva University stands before you, the message almost the same. The world today is very different, and not at all. Humankind has within its grasp the power to eliminate much of human suffering and much of human life. We have advanced technologically so that we can see into the human gene, yet cannot pierce the veil of our soul. We have come into the sunshine of freedom, and been scorched by the burning challenge of assimilation. The world has grown so small, yet we seem more lonely on the planet. We have been through the kur habarzel, the fiery furnace of the Shoah, yet have enjoyed prosperity, safety and influence unparalleled. Our brothers and sisters have been freed from bondage, even as too many have been lost en route to Mt. Sinai. Dr. Revel had no glimmer of the state of Israel; we cannot imagine life without it, and never will.

And yet, three generations have been sent forth from Yeshiva University-they have defined our world and helped shape the world. And with all the concern around us, who can look at this sacred symphony and not be hopeful that G-d has an orchestra of commitment to craft new strains of harmony bringing music in a world longing for lyrical joy.

For this is a wondrous family. Look around. The family of Abraham and Sarah, still seeking to share a message of hope with a world in need of the light of Torah, lives and thrives.

You complete this portion of your journey at YU as I begin mine. Yet we are bound together, determined to own the future, and to fulfill our collective mission to be mamlechet cohanim v’goy kadosh, a kingdom of priests and a noble nation.

Yes, our world today, the world which you enter, still, in Dr. Revel’s words, is “governed by conflict, fear and distrust.” You will likely face real challenges of terror, hatred and evil. War is a too close companion. You will share the planet with a generation of Jews who are mi sh’eyno yodea lishoel, who are estranged from our sacred story, ignorant of the most basic aspects of that story and of our mores and values. The world you confront is one of uncomfortable extremes. It is a world of caves and circuses, seemingly without a vital center.

Some retreat from a world they find unpleasant, immoral, brutish and cruel. They prefer the safer answers of certitude. Others embrace the hateful darkness of an extremist fundamentalism, intent on destroying all who offer another path. On the other extreme are those who uncritically embrace every excess and fad of our society. They prefer the valuelessness of relativism, libertinism and neo-paganism.

In this world, you are so sorely needed. For the past several years, you have deeply engaged in a life of Torah Umadda-you are thoroughly committed to the timeless truth of Torah and have absorbed the best that Western civilization has to offer. You have viewed the finest art, pondered the most profound philosophic principles, and unwrapped the secrets of science, all viewed through the lens of Torah and Torah values. And through that lens of Torah the quest has been imbued with meaning and inspiration.

A French astronomer once said, “I have swept the universe with my telescope and found no G-d. A British astronomer responded: That is as unreasonable as for me to say, “I have taken my violin apart and found no music.”

Young people long for the values we cherish and hold sacred. They want to make a difference, to be part of a transcendent corporate whole. You must and you will step forward and lead because your lives are filled with the music of meaning.

We have a covenantal responsibility to lead. You, graduates of Yeshiva University are the proud possessors of the heritage of our forbears, the gift of nobility, and the responsibility to advance civilization. Neither the circus nor the cave can enrich the future as you can. Step forward, impact on the world, spread goodness and Godliness, values and morals, truth and Torah. Champion nobility, beckon the dawn. And do so with joy. Ivdu et Hashem b’simcha.

The first words G-d proclaims in the Torah are not exhortations to sanctity, nor prescriptions for self-defense. Clearly and simply, G-d says, “Yehi Or-Let there be light.” The prime directive, the first revelation, is the command to enlighten, to bring light from darkness, order from chaos. We’ve been entrusted with the vehicle for living that objective, for Torah Or– the Torah is our light. You go forth from today into tomorrow. We gather at Sinai, and then, enriched with Torah, we advance to our promised land, where we can model those values that can illumine the world. We inhabit the tent of Avraham and Sarah, and continue the journey of our parents.

So let there be light, as you pierce the darkness of a troubled world with the nobility of our people and our story; let there be light, as you assume your rightful place as our Rabbis, teachers, leaders, scientists, poets and pathfinders; let there be light, as you build lives of learning and leading, of Torah Umadda, let there be light, as you build homes of love and commitment, communities of caring; let there be light, as you grow in your commitment to medinat Yisrael, reishit tzemichat geulateinu, and appreciation for the United States, the host to an unparalleled Jewish Renaissance; let there be light, as there emanates from Yeshiva University and the communities that are its family a renewed commitment to Am Echad Im Lev Echad, One people with One heart, Let there be light.

In 1961, a young American president echoed our values, as he charged a hopeful nation-“The energy, the faith, the devotion, which we bring to this endeavor, will light our country and all who serve it, and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”

Mazal Tov, and G-d bless you.

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