Our people, who are known as the “people of the book,” have cultivated since time immemorial a system of values, which is centered on a thirst for learning and study. It is this system of values (and not any racial or genetic factor) that is responsible for our reputation of having strong analytic abilities, as well as creativity. In our culture, the young maiden prefers Rambam to Rambo. She favors brain over brawn; she prefers the writings of Balei Tose’fot to the feats of Tarzan.
Later, she and her husband will transmit these preferences, these values, on to her children.
I personally know of young women who grew up in this culture and value system who, typically, before going on a date with a student, first examined his school grades – and not his baseball or football achievements. That, I believe, says it all.
However, times are rapidly changing, and with them, unfortunately, so is our system of values. How many young people do you see with a book in their hand rather than an iPhone? We are becoming the “people of the smartphone and the iPad.”
Knowledge is imparted in quick and often superficial messages by Google and Wikipedia.
On radio and TV we get knowledge in sound bites and breaking-news stories that are forgotten in a few days, if not before. The two-minute news snippets in 10-minute newspapers are vastly outselling any in-depth news coverage.
This lack of substance, this quick news story, this culture of flighty impressions, is becoming the norm. It is illustrated by the story of the tourist couple in Italy, at the Dome of Milan. “Ok honey,” he says to her, “we’ve got 10 minutes: you do the inside and I’ll do the outside.”
This rejection of our old and established values, and its replacement by superficial and shallow ersatz wisdom and pseudo-knowledge is, among other things, causing our universities to suffer as well. It is partially responsible for a primary and high-school culture that is far from optimal and, to our disgrace, does not rate well on the international scale. A poor pre-academic school system does not arouse the interest and curiosity that youngsters must have to take on the dedication that is necessary for an academic degree; it does not give a high priority to academic study after the matriculation exams and military service.
Furthermore, nowadays the privilege, benefit and value of in-depth academic study is actually being questioned, because the role models of today are high achievers without it. “Who needs academic study,” the young ask, “if Bill Gates, Steven Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg became billionaires without it?” Without denigrating the outstanding creativity of these exceptional pioneers, it must not be forgotten that for every Bill Gates there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of failed geniuses whose attempted short cuts did not work.
I believe that this erosion of values in general, and in particular this erosion of our tried and proven values, the values of study and learning, is regrettable, and must be stopped. When all is said and done, these values are largely responsible for our excelling professionally, and even for our very survival over millennia.
Helping, each in his and her own way, to avoid this erosion, is where you, our graduates of today and role models of tomorrow, come in.
You have shown by your diligence and perseverance, in the face of almost irresistible and enticing diversions, that you have maintained, and held on to the values of study and learning that are so important to our people, and that have been largely responsible for their professional and cultural success.
However, this is not enough.
As moral and educated human beings you carry an additional responsibility that has been passed on through the generations.
In the Book of Genesis, in chapter 18, verse 18 we are told that Hashem would bless mankind through our forefather Abraham, who would instruct his children and grandchildren in the way of God, “la’assot zdaka umishpat.”
Abraham was chosen by Hashem to be mankind’s supreme role model, by whom the world would be blessed, because not only would he follow in the ways of justice and righteousness, he would teach his children to do the same.
Today’s society is in desperate need of more decency, more justice, more honesty, and less corruption, all of which is embodied in zdaka umishpat. Each one of you is called upon to follow in the footsteps of Abraham and to act in the spirit of zdaka umishpat. Everybody can make a difference in our society, and this should be especially true for the educated ones among us.
So I hope that you will hold on to this precious system of values and, as it says in our scriptures, teach them to your children and children’s children (when the right time comes for you, of course). You can establish a firm and unbreakable link between your generation, the past generations, and the future generations who will follow in your footsteps. You, and we all, must remember that we have been given a unique opportunity to contributing in this way to the further development and strengthening of our country, for the glory of the State of Israel.
The article was excerpted from the speech delivered by the Dean of Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Engineering at the graduation ceremony for Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Exact Sciences, Life Sciences, and Engineering.