It is an enormous honor to be here today to wish you Mazal Tov on this beautiful moment in your lives, and in the shared life of our country. Normally a graduation speaker is supposed to offer new graduates a dose of wisdom and guidance. I’m supposed to advise you all to wear sunscreen, make mistakes, and live life to the fullest.
But the truth is that looking at all of you graduates, along with all the alumni, officers, faculty, veterans, and the families and friends gathered here who have poured their hearts into supporting you during these challenging years and the even more challenging years ahead, during which you have all dedicated your lives to defending our democracy, I feel completely outclassed by every person in this room. What can I possibly say to you that you don’t already know?
You are all already deeply aware of what many other college graduates only learn after years of aimlessly stumbling through life, which is that a life of meaning only comes from service to others. Compared to your peers graduating from other colleges around the country, you have all spent the last four years being extremely focused and extremely devoted. And to say something less graduation-worthy, you’ve also spent these years being extremely uncomfortable, and extremely uncool.
I can’t pretend to understand your experience, but I do know the profound value of being uncool and uncomfortable—and so does every Jew who has ever lived during the last 3,000 years.
Growing up in our pluralistic American society, many of us were taught a clunky lesson by well-meaning people who wanted us to respect our neighbors. The way we were often taught this important value was by someone essentially telling us, “See this group of people over here that you might be prejudiced against? You shouldn’t hate those people, because they’re just like you and me. They’re just like everybody else.”
But the problem is that Jews have spent the past 3,000 years not being like everyone else. Uncoolness is Judaism’s brand, going back to the ancient Near East, where everyone else was worshiping a Marvel Cinematic Universe of sexy deities, and the Jews were like the losers in the school cafeteria, praying to their bossy, unsexy invisible God. And over many centuries as a minority in places around the world, Jews have made the choice over and over again to remain uncomfortable: to distinguish themselves from their neighbors in any number of ways, to cling to those distinctions and, over the course of their lives, to learn and understand what those distinctions really mean. They made that choice even when they had easier options, and even when it meant risking their lives.
One of the things I’ve learned in my work as a writer is the profound value of being uncomfortable. The uncomfortable moments are always where the story is, because those are the moments where you are about to learn something that you might have gone through your entire life not knowing. The only way people learn and change is by being uncomfortable, by choosing to put themselves into situations that push them to the very edge of what they think they understand. That is a choice that all of you know well. You’ve chosen, at a young age, to dedicate yourselves completely to defending our nation, without any way to predict where that commitment might take you. And you’ve chosen not only to commit to that uncomfortably uncertain future, but to lead others through it.
Major David Frommer, the chaplain who has guided so many of you in West Point’s Jewish community, pointed out to me that Judaism has many unexpected similarities with life at West Point. Both are governed by complex rules of daily living that determine the details of what you wear, what you eat, how you talk, how you cut your hair, and how you spend every hour of every day. But military life and Jewish life are also similar in a much more fundamental way. They are both based on the ideal of obligation—or what in Judaism we call commandment.
Tomorrow night is Shavuot, the holiday when we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai thousands of years ago. Jewish legend teaches us that it was not only the Jews of that generation who stood at Sinai, but that all future Jews were also physically present at that moment, standing at Sinai to receive the Torah from God. As an American Jew, I used to be very troubled by that legend, because it seemed to directly contradict the American view of our place in history. In the United States, one of our foundational ideas is that it doesn’t matter who your parents or grandparents were, it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your background is; what matters is what you do with the opportunities this country has given you, and this is what we call the American dream.
In Jewish culture, the foundational legend of all of us standing at Sinai seemed to me like exactly the opposite of the American dream. It suggests that in fact it does matter who your parents and grandparents and great-great-great-grandparents were, and that the most important event in your life happened thousands of years before you were born and there’s nothing you can do about it. But Shavuot is also when we celebrate the biblical story of Ruth, the first convert to Judaism, who rejected the easier options and instead chose to join the Jewish people. The reality is that today, all Jews are Jews by choice, free to decide whether and how we will engage with this tradition. The Hasidic master Nachman of Bratslav taught that the giving of the Torah was not a one-time event, but that the Torah is given at every moment, in every hour of every day. Whether or not we believe that we all once stood at Sinai, the reality is that we all are constantly choosing what this tradition means to us, and whether we want to stand at Sinai again.
Judaism is not really a religion the way some of our neighbors might understand that word, as a set of abstract beliefs. Instead, it is a radical idea about freedom and responsibility.
The core idea of Judaism is monotheism and the rejection of idolatry. Today we imagine that idolatry in the ancient world meant praying to a statue, but that’s not what idolatry was, then or now. In the ancient Near East, the various nations had many gods, and sometimes one of those gods was the dictator. In ancient Egypt, where the Jews’ ancestors were enslaved, the pharaoh was considered one of the gods. When the Jewish people said that they do not bow to idols, what they really meant was that they do not bow to tyrants. People have often wondered how the Jews have survived so many thousands of years, being one of the only ancient peoples to endure until today. The answer is similar to America’s endurance as one of the longest-lasting democracies in the modern world. It lies in the refusal to bow to tyrants.
The Jewish people 3,000 years ago, like the American people almost 300 years ago, had to create a model of human leadership that was the antidote to tyranny. The generation of freed slaves discovered that freedom requires hard work, because it turns out that societies that aren’t run by tyrants require constant cooperation, decision-making, problem-solving, dedication and vigilance to sustain them.
We all know the famous words that God tells the Egyptian pharaoh through Moses: Let my people go. But in the Torah, almost every time God says Let my people go, it’s followed by another phrase: Let my people go, so they may serve me in the wilderness. The purpose of freedom is to allow the people to willingly accept the commandments—laws about how to create a just society. Human dignity comes from choosing to take on responsibility, from accepting obligations to others.
Today at West Point, you are all now standing once more at a kind of Sinai, recognizing your obligations as you commission as officers. And after that, you are all going out to serve in the wilderness. Our American forebears of all backgrounds saw this country as a wilderness—an open place of both fear and possibility. The future itself is also a wilderness, full of promise and uncertainty. You have all committed yourselves to a future you cannot imagine, and so did your parents when they raised you not so long ago. When the Jewish people accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai, they said: Na’aseh venishma: We will do it, and then we will listen. They accepted the Torah’s laws before even hearing what those laws were, and without regard to where those obligations might lead them, and only later did they listen to those laws, learn them, study them, and discover what they might mean. All of you have responded to that call in your lives as Americans, to defend this country with everything you have, and to use your talents to lead others in its defense. And in this beautiful Jewish chapel today, all of you are also responding to that call in your lives as American Jews.
For some of you, the power and beauty of Judaism is something that’s always been part of your life. For many of you, it’s something you discovered or deepened here, in this place you entered instinctively knowing what it means to lead a life defined by commitment. But all of you are about to go out into the wilderness. Your lives as American military leaders in the coming years will be well-structured, with challenging but apparent paths ahead of you. But how you continue to lead and deepen your Jewish lives, what paths you will take as Jewish leaders, is still entirely up to you.
That freedom and responsibility will be very uncomfortable. You will be making those choices in places where you might not have a Jewish community to support you, and at a moment in history when a resurgence of hatred might tempt you to make the more comfortable choice of not being openly Jewish at all. But you also have the courage of many generations of Jews behind you who made the uncomfortable choice—the ancient generations going back to Sinai, the more recent generations who escaped the persecutions of other places to come to this country, and also the 1,000-plus Jewish graduates of West Point, to whose names we now add yours. This country is one of the few in the world where Jews have had the opportunity to serve as military leaders. But in every place that Jews have had that opportunity, they have seized it. Even in the 900s, the Hebrew poet Shmuel Hanagid served as a general in Spain’s Islamic empire, leading armies into battle. In the ancient world, Jews were so renowned for being elite warriors that they were actively recruited by Persian imperial forces, who deliberately manned their most dangerous outposts with Jewish commanders. And as all of you know, Jewish cadets have graduated from West Point since the very first graduating class in 1802. These were all people who deeply understood the call to a life of service.
You have spent the past four years learning from the many military leaders around you—and maybe sometimes learning from them how you don’t want to lead. You have that in common with all West Point graduates from the past 200 years. But allow me to take a moment to prepare you for your future with some advice given to the very first Jewish military leader, long before West Point existed.
When Moses died in the wilderness, the leadership of the Jewish people passed to Joshua, a man with whom today’s graduates share much in common. Joshua was born into a people who had endured great oppression in the past in a foreign land, but whose new generation was born free from the sufferings of their elders. Their challenge was different: to build and protect a society that allowed for many different tribes and perspectives to live together and flourish. Like many of our graduates today, Joshua was different from his parents, and even from Moses, because unlike his civilian predecessors, Joshua was a warrior, a military leader tasked with entering enemy territory and defending the nation. Joshua had already engaged in covert operations, sneaking into the promised land to collect intelligence on how to conquer it. Nearly all of the other spies told Moses that the land was unconquerable. But Joshua was unafraid of the daunting military task ahead of them. And so when Moses died, God gave Joshua a commencement speech.
At what was essentially Joshua’s commissioning ceremony, God said to Joshua the famous Hebrew words: “Chazak ve’ematz”—Be strong and courageous. But the way God continued this commencement speech is very revealing. God didn’t give Joshua military advice, or tell him to respect his elders, or to make mistakes, or to wear sunscreen. Instead, God told Joshua to keep learning. God said to Joshua, “You should keep the book of the Torah always on your lips, you should recite from it day and night”. For God, “chazak ve’ematz,” to be strong and courageous, meant being brave enough to always continue learning: to keep going back to that uncomfortable place, to be curious and humble enough to learn what you don’t yet know—not just about the battlefield, and not just about life, but about this timeless Jewish civilization, this powerful antidote to tyranny, that has brought us to this moment and that now relies upon you to sustain it.
So on this momentous day, I’m not going to tell you to wear sunscreen. I think you have all the rules and regulations you need to tell you exactly what you’re supposed to wear. You also already know that you will make mistakes, and you can already teach the rest of us about how to live life to the fullest. Instead, I offer you the words of the God of our ancestors: Chazak ve’ematz: Be strong and courageous. Be strong and courageous enough to lead people into battle. Be strong and courageous enough to learn, again and again, what is worth defending. Be strong and courageous enough to stand at Sinai, at every hour of every day. Be strong and courageous, as you carry forth with you the antidote to tyranny.
Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam, shehechiyanu vekiyimanu vehigiy’anu lazman hazeh—Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who has kept us alive and sustained us, and brought us to this moment. May God bless America and its defenders. Mazal Tov.
Dara Horn is the award-winning author of five novels and the essay collection People Love Dead Jews.