FOR THE RECORD
Baccalaureate speech: Leonard Fein
This is the text of the baccalaureate speech delivered by Leonard Fein on June 14.
The cast of characters in this weekend's ritual drama is well established: There are, most visibly, the graduates, their parents and families, the faculty, and the more or less distinguished speakers. And the assigned response of each of these is also familiar: from the graduates, celebration and the first intimations of nostalgia; from the parents and families, pride in their children and joy in anticipation of rediscovering the meaning of solvency; from the faculty, satisfaction and a measure of surprise that yet another cohort of the unwashed now joins the company of the educated; and from the more or less distinguished speakers, endless gratuitous advice.
I am going to depart from the tradition this morning. I depart from it because I have in very much in mind an old Jewish story that tells of a Jew who one day came to his rabbi in desperation. "Rabbi," he said, "It's our goat. Our goat, our only means of livelihood, is sick, listless. Rabbi, help."
The rabbi replied, "Oats. Feed the goat only oats for a week, and then come see me." A week later, the Jew returned, panicked: "Rabbi, last week the goat had just a few symptoms, but now she's limping, her eyes are half-closed, and she's got no more milk. Rabbi, you must help."
"Barley," said the rabbi. "Feed the goat only barley for a week, and then come see me." When the week was up, the Jew appeared again: "Rabbi, Rabbi, the goat is in a coma. For God's sake, tell me what to do!"
"Corn," said the rabbi. "Corn for a week, then come see me." "But Rabbi, our goat has never ever eaten corn." "Feed the goat corn. Then come see me." And when, a week later, the Jew returned, and the rabbi asked, "So how is the goat?" the Jew replied, "Rabbi, our goat died last night." "I'm so sorry," said the rabbi. "What a shame. I had so much more advice to give you."
So, no advice, save for one tiny and very personal exception which I trust you will indulge me, and that is that as soon as we have finished here, you make your way to the bookstore to buy a copy of my daughter's book, entitled Moving On: How to Make the Transition from College to the Real World, which contains all the advice you need for the time being. That's Jessica Fein, F-E-I-N.
That aside, I offer you this morning one fact and one assertion, some stories that connect the fact to the assertion, and finally and centrally, a question.
The fact, a fact that is in itself infinitely disturbing and that stands as well for a class of facts we ought regard as downright scandalous: In these United States, in this year so close to the dawn of a new millennium, 24 percent of the children under 6 years old live in poverty. One out of four. Now, you can react to that fact in any number of ways. You can say, "Sorry, that's not my business." Or you can furl your brow and say, "What a shame, but the poor will always be with us, don't you know." You may send a modest check to or perhaps even volunteer in your local soup kitchen or food bank, or you may choose to live with restless indignation and search out opportunities to fix what is so manifestly broken. Odds are, if you're like most of us these days, you'll cluck your tongue in sympathy, shrug your shoulders in futility and go on about your own affairs.
And the assertion? The assertion at this baccalaureate service is that the truths of religion are not contained in the answers it offers, but in the questions it asks. The assertion is that religion does not come to answer our questions; it comes to question our answers.
And now, three stories that connect the fact to the assertion, three stories about what I have called "holy audacity."
Once upon a very long-ago time, there lived a man named Avraham - Abraham, in English. One day, God commanded Avraham to take his child "whom you love," Yitzhak, and "offer him up" as a sacrifice. Avraham, who, as Everett Fox points out in his stunning translation of the Torah, had earlier been asked to give up his past (i.e., his father's house) was now instructed to give up his future (i.e., his son). No man has ever been asked for a greater demonstration of piety, and the wonder over what Avraham was thinking when he "stretched out his hand" and "took the knife to slay his son" has inspired libraries' worth of inquiry and commentary.
Now this Avraham, so very pious, is the same man who, when God informed him that he intended to destroy the wicked cities of Sedom and Amora, replied, "Will you really sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? Perhaps there are fifty innocent within the city, will you really sweep it away? Will you not bear with the place because of the fifty innocent that are in its midst? Heaven forbid for you to do a thing like this, to deal death to the innocent along with the guilty, that it should come about: like the innocent, like the guilty. Heaven forbid for you! The judge of all the earth - will He not do what is just?"
The balance of the story you know. We remember its spectacular component, its made-for-Hollywood destruction of the wicked cities and the transformation of Lot's wife into a pillar of salt. But all that is merely the attention-grabbing element. The heart of the matter is in the extraordinary conversation it offers us. For whatever one makes of the akedah, the sacrifice, however one judges Avraham's readiness to slay his son, that readiness establishes beyond any doubt his piety. And it is this same pious man who so boldly intervenes on behalf of the innocent, who calls God Almighty to account.
And from that time to this, those who have followed the example of Abraham have distinguished and redeemed the history of our species.
Which brings me to my second story, which takes place some 3,000 years later, in Hungary in the last two months of 1944. Earlier that year, 434,351 Hungarian Jews had been deported, nearly all of them to Auschwitz. We know that number with such precision because the Nazis were punctilious record-keepers. But in Budapest, the Jewish community of some 260,000 remained relatively intact. And then, in November and December of 1944, even as the sound of the Soviet artillery approaching from the east became audible, even as the Russian army advanced to within a few hundred yards of the Jewish ghetto of Budapest, long after the Germans knew the war was lost, the deportations and the death marches escalated to new levels of frenzy. During November and December, nearly half the Jews of Budapest, more than 100,000 men, women and children, were ground up by the Nazi death machine, presided over by Adolph Eichmann himself, the man assigned the task of executing Hitler's policy of making Europe Judenrein, of carrying out the Final Solution.
But another hundred thousand were spared, survived the war. It's tempting to say their survival was miraculous, but there was no miracle here, no sudden ram in a thicket to take their place. Instead, there was a 32-year-old Swedish diplomat named Raoul Wallenberg, then an attaché at the Swedish embassy, who broke every rule in the diplomatic book in order to extricate the condemned from the intended slaughter. On those days when you despair of the human condition - alas, there will be such days - I commend to you the story of what Wallenberg did. His story is rich in its detail; I share with you just a sampling of his heroic decency, his holy audacity: Whenever a deportation was scheduled, Wallenberg would show up at the train station. He would lope in, dressed in his worn raincoat with his broad-brimmed hat, an entourage of his staff behind him. He would create an office at the station by calmly opening a folding table and settling down with his big notebook. He would then demand that those with Swedish papers, schutzpasse - which he himself had forged - come forward. He would solemnly check off their names in his big book and separate them from the others. Then he would ask for those with preliminary application papers. Some would immediately catch on to the fact that any piece of paper would do. And all the time the guards would stand watching, not knowing how to respond, since the new Hungarian government was hoping for recognition from Sweden.
More than once, he drove like a madman to overtake a transport on its way to Auschwitz, and again managed to free some of those who were headed to the gas chambers. And when, in the ghastliest chapter of this horrific saga, the Nazis in mid-winter moved the elderly, the women and the children out of Budapest on a 200-mile-long march, a death march, a march in which those who stumbled were either killed or left to die, there, too, Wallenberg would swoop onto the scene and pluck from the legion of the damned a handful or a hundred, as many as he could, and bring them to safety, to life.
It is distressing to have to note that when they liberated
Budapest, the Soviets arrested Wallenberg and that his own life
ended, so far as we know, many years later in a Soviet jail. It is
comforting to note that other than Winston Churchill, Raoul
Wallenberg is the only person ever made an honorary citizen of the
United States. Above all, it is important, perhaps even critical,
to note and to underscore that even in extremis, resistance to evil
is possible. When Raoul Wallenberg said "no" to the Nazis, he
distinguished and redeemed the human species, and he set an example
for us all.