Together with you, and like you, I know that Commencement exercises are more than a ceremony, they transcend even the rite of passage inherent in their symbolism. They represent a watershed in your life. From now on there will be a before and an after.
You are about to enter the outside world. Is anyone waiting for you there? This is the moment you ask yourselves: where am I in my life? What role has it prepared for me? What IS the state of the world out there?
A story, which may be useful to the medical graduates, the MDs already, the story is: a man came to his doctor with numerous complaints. The doctor examines him thoroughly and, at the end, naturally, asks him to open his mouth. And said, 'Oh friend I don't like your tongue.' And the patient answered, 'that's the only one I have.'
Well, graduates. This is the only world we have. Who or what is there that will tell us what to do in order to preserve our humanity and celebrate that of others? A future husband or wife, a friend, perhaps a profitable position or situation. Those who have invested in your education their talent and knowledge have done so believing that you will one day emerge in positions of power or influence whose decisions may affect the welfare and the lives of many. Or at least of one other person. And that will be their reward.
So wherever life will take you, whatever your endeavor might be, in any field and whatever the social surroundings, it is what you have received here from your able and inspired teachers that will serve as your vantage points and guides. Do not forget them; I have not forgotten mine. Most belong to the distant past, some were more recent. All remain in my memory. Isaiah and Rabbi Akiba, Plato and Spinoza, Dostoievski and Kafka: their vision has retained its haunting quality, and their voice when I write or when I teach reverberates in my own.
The teacher in me tells you that what he has learned from them is what I can give you. The magic of words and the weight of silence that separates one from the other. But I have also learned from others, who were their enemies and mine. Sad lessons, dark lessons, appalling lessons. They have taught me that education can be frail and culture vulnerable when they are void of moral dimensions.
Whether in the sciences or in the humanities, in the field of law or of religion, your pursuit of knowledge and truth has led you to distinguish between what helps humanity move forward toward light and warmth and what compels it to remain behind in frustration and darkness.
I have learned that racism is stupid. Not only is it ugly, it is stupid. All forms of racism are stupid. As I have learned anti-Semitism is appalling, repulsive, grotesque.
I have witnessed the unspeakable fate of countless Jewish children, the first to be targeted by the enemy for annihilation. And when I say the enemy I do not mean simply the enemy of my people. I believe the enemy of one people is the enemy of all people. I believe that whatever happens to one community affects all communities. That is why the tragedy of so many children today moves me so often to frustration and anger. Every minute we spend together, now, my young friends, now, somewhere on this planet a child dies of starvation, disease and violence: are we doing enough to save them?
Yes, as a Jew I have learned to view my Jewishness as a fusion between the particular and the universal. I have learned to respect those who are not Jewish for what they are, and not for what or they are not.
As a Jew I have learned that even when the Messiah will come, and I believe that as Jew that one day redemption must come to humanity. Even then the world will not become entirely Jewish, it would be boring, but it will be simply more hospitable, caring and friendlier.
I have learned, my young friends, I have learned, I have learned that learning is a passion that must not diminish with years. That
applies to memory as well. It needs to be shared, lest it remains stifled, icy, silent.
Memory tells us that the past is in the present, even when it is not unraveled.
Memory has its own archeology, its own mystery, its own language. If not complacent or intimidated, it will enrich your aspirations and commitments. What would culture, education or indeed civilization be without its lasting and challenging appeal?
My memory, though rooted in the darkness of the abyss, has taught me the imperative of solidarity and friendship. My good friends, when I came to those places and in those places people told us then don't think about anyone but yourself. That is how you will survive. And they were wrong. Only those who thought of others, anyone who had a friend or a father or a brother or simply a comrade for whom he or she cares, he or she had a better chance to live, and therefore to survive.
My memory had taught me that my humanity is defined by yours. Even when my faith is different from yours, it is neither superior nor inferior in its authenticity. Is its name tolerance? No: tolerance could suggest condescendence, and I prefer the word 'respect'. It also means: respect for your freedom and mine and for the freedom of those who have no freedom. I am free not because someone is not but because he or she is. And if their freedom is curtailed, mine is blemished.
And that is also true of hope, the most vital element of all human equations. War is an act of despair. Peace of a song of and for hope. And my fervent desire has always been to create a hope that is not someone else's nightmare.
Now we have just entered, just now, a new century. It is still young and so is its hope. But what about its fears? What about its demons? They are old and so present.
Hatred, religious hatred is still ravaging the human heart in so many places. Bosnia and Rwanda are all but forgotten. But Somalia and Sudan are not. Must not.
In former refugee camps in Yugoslavia, I visited families in the tents, going around from one to the other. From one surviving victim to another, listening to their tales. And not one succeeded in completing a story. They all broke out in tears. And I felt: perhaps this is what we must learn: to collect tears and turn them into stories. Into gestures of solidarity and compassion.
From my teachers I also learned the sublime art of questioning. From Erasmus I learned to praise folly and from Montaigne to accept the power of doubt. I like Nietzsche's warning that madness is a consequence not of uncertainty but of certainties.
And this we better remember now for there exists a new or renewed scourge named fanaticism that afflicts contemporary events. In my life time, it has already produced collective humiliations and mass murder: political fanaticism in Moscow and racist fanaticism in Berlin. Both were defeated, one politically and the other militarily. But the 21st century is already threatened by a resurrected religious fanaticism of the Middle Ages. It grows in every religion, even in mine, and some of its practitioners on the other part, on the other side, some call themselves martyrs, forgetting that both in Judaism and Christianity a martyr is someone who dies for God, not someone who kills for God.
So how is one to fight fanaticism? Whatever the answer, education must be its principal component.
In conclusion, only this: my young friends. This century is not mine. It is yours. If there is hope, and there must be, you will shape it and you justify it.
All I can do is offer you my memories and experiences to help you in your quest, so that the years ahead will enable you to confront the inevitable fear and trembling which are inherent in the human condition in its fight for better times.
Granted, the world you inherited is far from being safe and peaceful. But it is your task, and maybe mine still, to improve it. Remember: one person's courageous humanist initiative or moral commitment can make a difference and it has. Always one person saved, one person or one family in those dark times and they remain my idols. For even then, those who did so restored the honor of the human race and of humanity.
Well, of all Albert Camus's sayings I prefer the one which comes at the dénouement of his novel The Plague: When everything is done. After all is said and done, said Camus, there is more in man, which means in human being, to celebrate than to denigrate.
And so today, my young friends, let's celebrate our new beginnings. Let's celebrate man's power to transcend tragedy and his or her dream to overcome the oppressor's will to conquer and dominate.
Whether you know it or not, in some parts of the planet, there are people who need you. And they are waiting for you.
(Excerpts from a Dartmouth Commencement Address, June 2006. Photo: Dr. Wiesel giving the Commencement Address. By Joseph Mehling.)