In the last few weeks, a new You Tube sensation has emerged. It is the recording of a high school commencement address – now widely known as the “You’re Not Special” speech.
The address was given by David McCullough, a beloved English teacher at a public high school in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Instead of the usual well-worn clichés, graduating seniors and their families heard these bracing words.
“Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped,” he told graduating seniors. “Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you, and encouraged you again . . . But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.”
So far, the video of the speech has been viewed more than a million times.
Viewers around the world have been captivated by this individual teacher’s willingness to speak bluntly – and indeed beautifully -- to privileged young people in one of the most affluent suburbs in the nation. “Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction . . . Be worthy of your advantages.”
The message strikes a chord at a time when there is a lot of hand-wringing by parents and educators alike about whether we are over-praising and over-protecting our children. McCullough reminds us that we must not confuse a sense of entitlement with a sense of genuine self-esteem, that we cannot let easy accolades stand in for the satisfaction that comes from hard-earned achievement.
A similar message – cast in religious terms -- is underscored by an ancient power struggle that is recorded in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Korach.
The portion tells the story of a revolt -– the most serious rebellion against Moses and Aaron as leaders of the Israelites during their years of wandering in the wilderness. The uprising is led by a man named Korach, about whom we know very little (except that he, like Moses and Aaron, comes from the tribe of Levi). But the text describes the essence of his protest in the openings verses of the portion.
“Now, Korach, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth – descendent of Reuben – to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” [Numbers 16:1-4]
The uprising is ultimately a failure, and Korach and his followers are destroyed in a dramatic display of divine vengeance. But the original protest is preserved. And in fact, the rest of the story is unsettling precisely because Korach’s argument seems so reasonable, even compelling, to our democratic, egalitarian ears.
What, then, was wrong with Korach’s complaint? The Israeli scholar and social critic, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, offers an interpretation that resonates strikingly with the anti-entitlement message of David McCullough’s “You’re Not Special” speech.
According to Leibowitz, the problem with Korach’s protest is that he treats holiness as a given rather than a goal, an assumption rather than an aspiration. “All the community are holy,” says Korach, speaking in the present tense. No, Leibowitz argues, the people are not holy. Kedoshim tehiyu. “You shall become holy.” The divine command to be holy is always addressed to us in the future tense. We are not there yet, and as soon as we think we are, we are in trouble.