A Very Narrow Bridge – Graduation Speech

I just want to start by clearing something up. I know that for many of you, this is your first time here, so one thing should know is that this isn’t actually where we go to school. Milken is over there, across the freeway. And to get there, you have to cross an overpass. And for many months, now, there’s been a sign at the entrance to the overpass. It’s bright orange and it says just two words: “narrow bridge.”

And I’ve found it difficult to pass that sign every morning without thinking of that song that I learned so many years ago: Kol ha’Olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od. The whole entire world is a very narrow bridge.

The song comes from a teaching from the Hasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav. Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od, v’ha’ikar lo l’fached k’lal. The entire world is a very narrow bridge, scary, precarious, daunting, but the ikar, the essential thing, is not to be afraid.

And I have to tell you – I’m not sure if I buy that. It seems too easy. The response seems so simple, when the challenge is immense.

There are too many reasons to be afraid. I’m not talking about the little fears, of spiders, of heights.

I’m talking about when we were seven, when terrorists flew airplanes into buildings, and we watched those buildings crumble, and we saw the people leap, and though we were young, we felt the pang of death, and the air of dread, and the fear that comes with destruction.

I’m talking about when we were nine and ten when an intifada raged and crowded buses were blown up in Jerusalem. And when we were fifteen, when these parched mountains erupted in flames, and they burned, and again, we felt in danger.

There are too many reasons to be afraid.

And, often, those big fears pervade our air waves, and flood into our hearts; but sometimes there are more specific moments – beyond the fires, beyond the terrorism – that fill us with fear.

Just last month, many of us were in Poland, on the March of the Living. And after one of our tours, we stopped in the town of Lublin for lunch. And as a few of us sat down near the sidewalk, a couple of locals approached us.

And they started yelling. And they shoved a few of us. And they were shouting, with vitriol, the word “ketyusha” – the name of the rocket that Hamas terrorists fire into the south of Israel. “Ketyusha, ketyusha.” Be gone; cease to be.

And for, really, the first time in my very sheltered life, I felt clenched in the fist of anti-semitism. And in that moment, I was terrified because I was Jewish.

There are too many reasons to be afraid. But sometimes the fear is smaller; sometimes it’s just about what we don’t know.

In a couple months I’ll fly to Atlanta and start my days in college. I can’t wait – for the late nights, and the brilliant professors. But you should know, parents, that no matter how many times your child says, “I’m ready to go to college” – it’s scary.

It’s scary because – how do I decide which one of the 85 international relations courses to take next year? I couldn’t even choose between a necktie or a bow-tie for prom.

And choices are going to be everywhere: I don’t know which ones will change the course of my life, and I don’t know which ones will lead to a dead end. I don’t know. And it can be paralyzing.

There are too many reasons for us to be afraid. To fear for our lives; for our wallets; for our country. To fear for our reputations; for our health; for our futures; for you. Those fears can cripple us. But they don’t have to.

The journalist Rick Stengel tells a story about flying on a small airplane with Nelson Mandela. When it was almost time to land, one of the propellors malfunctioned, and stopped spinning. The plane was failing. And everyone in the cabin went into a panic. And amid the chaos, Stengel looked over at Mandela. And Mandela was just sitting there, flipping calmly through a magazine.

And the plane finally landed, and everyone was safe. And when they were on the ground, Mandela finally spoke. He turned to Stengel and said “Man, I was scared up there!”

And his silent, calm reaction is classic Mandela. But it doesn’t work for those of us who haven’t spent three decades as political prisoners. It doesn’t work for us. There are other, more realistic, more human responses to fear.

One is defiance. To say no – no to indignity, no to absurdity, to injustice, to anti-semitism. To halt a poisonous reality. The first response to fear is to say no.

Or another response: to pursue our own holy vision. To build. To answer our experience in Poland by cultivating vigorous, purposeful Judaism; by coming home and wearing a kippah, and learning Israeli dance, and engaging in Jewish politics, and speaking Hebrew. The second response to fear is no to say no, but to say yes.

And a third response, perhaps the most accessible, and yet infinitely complex. The third response is to build a community that has the capacity for both – the fortitude to say no and the vision to say yes; to find an equilibrium between defiance and rebuilding. The third response calls on relationships – it calls on the people who animate the sacred no and yes.

Rebbe Nachman’s narrow bridge is scary because we worry that we’ll fall off into a deep and uncertain abyss. And so when I feel myself trembling, when I feel myself falling, I want an arm to grab onto – like when I was seven, and those buildings were crumbling on TV, and I felt a warm hug from my mom that told me, without words, that I was safe. And that we were together.

And after I was shoved in Poland – and I felt shaken – I boarded a bus with Hannah, and Howie, and Ruthie, and we talked about what we’d just seen. And we were together.

By no means are my friends the remedy to the world’s ills. (That I think we know.) But by all means, in all cases, whether we’re seven, or eighteen, or thirty-five, or eight-two, a community with a purpose can conquer fear. That’s how we respond.

Even just last fall, we witnessed defiance in the face of overwhelming fear, when millions of our own stood and would not sit until their young soldier was home. And though it was painful, indeed he came home.

And we’ve seen what it means to pursue a holy vision. To build. To create. And we’ve spun visions of our own, in those buildings across the bridge – of robots, and urban gardens, and honor codes based in our core values.

And so when this ceremony ends, and we leave here, perhaps for the last time, and we see that orange sign, and we read those two words, we can feel afraid. But we can also be defiant. And we can be visionaries. And in the communities we join, and build, and elevate, we can challenge and we can be challenged; we can nurture, and we can be nurtured; we can say yes to our visions, say no to destruction. And that’s how we push forward. And that’s how we proceed. Because when there are too many reasons to be afraid, that’s how we cross – with defiance. That’s how we cross – with a vision. That’s how we cross that very narrow bridge.


One thought on “A Very Narrow Bridge – Graduation Speech

  1. Ami: please keep thinking, keep writing, and keep sharing. I know many many people are very proud of you and very impressed by you. I am one of them. Congratulations on your graduation. The world will be an even better place with you off on this next big adventure. Fare Foreword.

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