For Such A Time As This

Sarah Victor

A couple of millennia ago, a young girl, not much older than most college students, faced a choice not too different from one we all must make every single day. Would she stand up for someone else when it cost her something personally? The girl in our passage today did do something: in fact her actions put her own life on the line. This girl lived in an empire that had taken her people, the Jewish people, captive. The king’s second-in-command hated the Jews and tricked the king into creating a law that all the Jewish people would be killed on a certain day. But the one thing the second-in-command didn’t factor in is that our girl was secretly Jewish. She was also the queen. When the girl’s uncle found out about this new law, he was inconsolable and told her about it. He said that it was up to her to go before the King and plead for the people’s lives. But the girl knew that according to the law of the land, one couldn’t just walk up to the king and talk to him, even if you were the queen. The king would put you to death if you entered his court uninvited, unless he made an exception and extended his royal scepter of favor. The girl replied to her uncle that it wasn’t possible: that she couldn’t go before the king under threat of her life. Her uncle’s response to that statement rings through the ages: “If you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have COME TO THE KINGDOM FOR SUCH A TIME AS THIS?” The girl’s response was equally memorable: she instructed her uncle to call all the Jews to combined prayer and fasting for her appearance before the king. Recognizing the risk, she realized her responsibility to her people was greater: “I will go to the king,” she said, “which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!” The rest of the story is history: the girl went before the king and he was pleased to see her: I will give you whatever you want, “up to half my kingdom” he said. She begged the king for the life of her people, and the king was more than happy to grant her wish. When the king found out about his second-in-command’s evil intentions to kill the Jews, he ordered him executed and replaced him with the girl’s uncle as the second-in-command, ushering in a period of peace and prosperity for the Jewish people.

You’ve probably guessed by now the name of girl in passage: her name was Esther. In Jewish circles every year, the story is told and the happy ending celebrated at the feast of Purim. The story of Esther transcends centuries to speak to our lives today: it is a great story, with a fairytale ending, yes, but beyond that the story establishes a clarion cry for action: for personal action based off a deep personal conviction. Personal action that jeopardizes our comfort, and perhaps even our lives. Personal action that recognizes the influence of a higher power that can direct our steps.

This same sort of personal action is what the founding of our country was premised (upon): At the conclusion of the Declaration of Independence, the 56 signers said that “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” These words were not some sort of fancy rhetorical flourish tacked on at the end: if this experiment for liberty did not work out, all of them would be executed as traitors to the crown. They were putting the very core of who they were on line for the ideals in which the believed. And pay the price they did: five signers did in fact give their LIFE: they were captured by the British as traitors and tortured before they died. Two lost their sons serving in the Revolutionary Army, another had two sons captured. Nine of the 56 fought and died from wounds or hardships of the Revolutionary War. In terms of FORTUNES, twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. Vandals or soldiers looted the properties of Dillery, Hall, Clymer, Walton, Gwinnet, Heyward, Ruttledge, and Middleton. Francis Lewis had his home and properties destroyed. The enemy jailed his wife, and she died within a few months. John Hart was driven from his wife’s bedside as she was dying. Their 13 children fled for their lives. His fields and his gristmill were laid to waste. For more than a year, he lived in forests and caves, returning home to find his wife dead and his children vanished. A few weeks, later, he died from exhaustion and a broken heart. These were just a few of the sacrifices made in the name of “liberty and justice for all.” And who were these men? Were they social outcasts who had nothing better to do than start a war with the extra time on their hands? Quite the contrary: Nine were farmers and large plantation owners, men of means, well educated, eleven were merchants, twenty-four were lawyers and jurists.

All these individuals knew what they were getting into: they knew that it would have been a lot more convenient to stick with the status quo, but they stuck their necks out for the ideals in which the believed.

So what were these ideals – these American ideals –  for which these men were willing to pay the ultimate price? A couple paragraphs above, the Declaration declares: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These foundational Rights are the ones upon which fairness and social justice are premised. For if ALL people are not endowed with these unalienable Rights, why would fairness even be a necessary ideal to strive for in the human condition? Why would the central tenets of social justice – based on the principles of equality and solidarity, understanding and valuing human rights, and recognizing the dignity of every human being – be worth a dime? In other words, the reason all individuals should be given a fair shot at life is because they have certain characteristics by virtue of being human.

In the Jewish Scriptures, the same emphasis God placed on the inherent worth of humanity, even the weakest among us, can be seen from the commands given to the Israelites in the Torah: In Exodus chapter 22 verses 21-27, God says “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. (My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless.) If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it by sunset, because that cloak is the only covering your neighbor has. What else can they sleep in? When they cry out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.” The mindset embodied in these laws are applicable to our own discussions of policy and the way we orient ourselves towards the less fortunate: it is clear that a consideration for the needs of others and a mindset of thinking about others before ourselves is crucial to a proper understanding of social justice.

A couple centuries later, the prophet Micah summed up the spirit of these law in a few brief words: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act JUSTLY and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (chapter 6:8)
Being right before God was very much interlinked with the way in which human beings ACTED towards each other.

In his book To Heal a Fractured World, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks echoes the refrain of why WE should feel morally implicated in the social injustices of our day, and brings these principles closer to home. Why do we attempt to solve ethnic conflict, mass poverty, famine, AIDS, and genocide, when these are happening far away to people we have never met, with whom we have little in common, and whose consequences will only touch us tangentially (or slightly?), if at all?

According to Sacks, the answer lies in the common thread of personal responsibility that is seen in the Hebrew Bible and in American Ideals. “What is striking about the Hebrew Bible is that it is based on two processes, not one: the social contract that creates a state, and the social covenant that creates a society. Israel enacted its social contract in the days of Samuel, when it voted for a monarchy (1 Sam. 8). It entered its social covenant centuries earlier, at Mount Sinai, when it accepted the sovereignty of God and the authority of his commandments. Israel was not yet a state: it had not even entered its land. But from that moment on, it was a society, bound by [the principle of shared responsibility]. America underwent a similar process. First came its equivalent of covenant: the Declaration of Independence of 1776. Only later did it formulate its social contract: the Constitution of 1787. The message of the Bible for the politics of the contemporary West is that it is not enough to have a state. [WE] also need a society – meaning, that common belonging that comes from a sense that we are neighbours as well as strangers; that we have duties to one another, to the heritage of the past and to the hopes of generations not yet born; that society is not a hotel where we receive services in exchange for money, but a home to which we feel attached and whose history is (literally or adoptively) our own. ” The concept here is that the reason for our personal responsibility towards social justice and fairness is our shared humanity.

John Donne put it this way: “ All mankind is of one another, and is one volume…No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in all mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

The methodological means through which we can uphold these principles that undergird our social fabric is explained by scholar and former Cornell professor of law Milton Konvitz in his essay “The Use of Intelligence in the Advancement of Civil Rights." Konvitz explores the evolution of civil rights in American history, paralleled by continually broader interpretations of the Constitution’s guarantee of equality. He says that in order to reach this greater equality of rights – this greater fairness, this greater social justice – requires a creative use of intelligence and constant personal evolution: “it is the use of the intelligence creatively …that makes it one of the supreme examples of human responsibility. This creative intelligence is not that of a disembodied soul; it is not abstract reason. It is informed by passion even as it is informed by logic; it is moved by goals even as it searches for and creates or changes goals; and it is moved by facts even as it seeks to direct the creation of conditions from which will emerge new facts – new facts, new goals, new values, and even new passions, new conflicts, and new loves.”

Taking a quick glance at the rearview mirror of American history, we can see this evolution of in action, as the founding father’s conception of humanity has been gradually broadened. The Declaration’s original words “all men are created equal” intrinsically excluded one-half of the population that was female. According to the original Constitution, African-Americans were considered three-fifths of a person and not given full weight of the law. 

We have come a long way as Americans since the days in which our legal definitions of humanity were so narrow, but we still have still have {in the words of Robert Frost’s famous poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening”} “miles to go before we sleep.”

Those exclusions, codified by the laws of the land, were only symptomatic of a much larger problem: the ingrained social and cultural norms that relegated, classified, and compartmentalized humans, PEOPLE based on gender, race, and ethnic groups – issues that we still have to confront on a daily basis. The central tenets of social justice that emphasize the INTRINSIC VALUE AND WORTH OF EVERY SINGLE HUMAN DIGNITY have not been fully realized as long as ethnic cleansing, mass poverty, and inequality are problems confronted by MILLIONS of HUMANS EVERY SINGLE DAY, not just in America but around the world.

Konvitz’s idea of a social justice expanded by creative intelligence speaks to us, as Cornellians, because we are continually in the quest for greater knowledge. How refreshing it is to view this knowledge as a conduit to greater good: isn’t it exciting that the way in which we channel our intelligence and continually reorient our responsibility to and relationships with our fellow humans can be the path to greater social justice and fairness? Isn’t it thrilling that the gift we have been given of intelligence and opportunity can be creatively oriented towards the realization of TIKKUN OLAM, (translated from Hebrew as mending a broken world)? Like Esther, we have been placed in our own circles of influence – whether law, or economics, or biology, or government, or agriculture, or psychology to physics or communication – to in some small way fulfill our personal responsibility to our larger social community, to leave a footprint, to be the change we wish to see in the world, to impact our sector of humanity FOR SUCH A TIME AS THIS.

And so as we leave this place determined to make it our life’s goal to live out these ideals – not in the same way, not in the same field, but in our own circles of influence, however big or small, realizing that we have been placed in our own little worlds FOR SUCH A TIME AS THIS let’s depart with the Aaronic blessing, phrased so beautifully in Numbers 6: 24-26 "The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace."