Who knows, perhaps we have been placed here by the universe for such a time as this. Perhaps the Spirit of Life has encouraged us, guided us, and sustained us for this very season; this season when all of the courage, friendship, and moral discernment we can muster are brought to bear in our march toward human rights, reproductive justice, and peace in our community and our world.
This moment in history calls forth everything we have if we plan to truly live our values. This moment calls for us to be in right relationship with one another. This moment calls us to care for one another, through prevention and preparedness and compassion. This moment calls for us to use the gifts of our minds and hearts, all that we have learned and all that we are open to learning in the future. This moment calls for us to be rooted in our religious heritage and connected with our spiritual center. This moment calls for us to honestly name our privileges and to claim the gifts we bring to a movement for change.
For all of these reasons, I am glad that the Jewish holiday of Purim is approaching, almost matching up this year with International Women’s Day. Purim starts tomorrow evening, March 9. This is the holiday when Jewish communities read the Scroll of Esther, on which this morning’s story is based. It’s also a day for lifting up bravery and survival through merriment. Purim celebrations feature costumes and noisemakers, re-enacting a story about identities that are hidden and revealed. I thought it would be good to talk about Purim today, since we need courage for such a time as this.
International Women’s Day is March 8. It is a day for celebration, and also a call to action for all of us to work toward gender equity. Some of the issues holding our world back from peace, health, and equality are identified as “women’s issues,” yet they affect all of us: men, women, nonbinary people, and everyone else. When we change the world to bring about freedom and safety for everyone, we will not only close the gender gap, we will be closer to the vision of a planet at peace.
You can probably see why the Scroll of Esther is a good story for such a time as this. She has the privilege of a role in the palace, and she risks her powerful status and her life in a bold move to speak up for her people. She comes to understand that her wellbeing and liberation is linked with the wellbeing and liberation of people who are more vulnerable than she is. She uses her diplomatic skills, including some skills we may think of as feminized, in order to uproot evil.
At the point when Esther has to decide whether to risk her life in response to a royal decree commanding genocide, her cousin Mordecai wonders whether she has been placed in her high position for just such a time as this. We must ask ourselves the same question. Most us are not literal princesses, but even if we don’t have a closet full of ball gowns, we have something. We have this community. If we work together, our shared voice has power. Some of us have the capacity to invite friends and family to join us in changing the world. Some of us have privileges of race, or gender, or education, or ability, or immigration status. Every one of us has some kind of talent or gift we can use for such a time as this.
We can ask Mordecai’s question another way using a different Jewish source, Hillel the Elder, who said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (This is from Pirkei Avot 1:14.) Esther realizes that speaking up for her people means also speaking up for herself. She also realizes that it is worth risking her life and her privilege, because she is not only for herself. She chooses to speak up before the atrocity, not after. If not now, when?
Even if we do not believe that a Higher Power has made detailed arrangements for the gifts and opportunities we have, we get to decide what meaning we want to make of the current situation. We can decide to craft the story of our lives along the path of justice, kindness, mercy, and shared liberation. In such a time as this, we choose what to do with the talents, opportunities, and resources that have landed within our reach.
I want to go back to the question, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Those of us who are women, or non-binary, and/or Transgender have experienced the paradox of gender expectations as we claim our right to exist in the world. We are asked to go along to get along, to put others needs before our own, to put a lot of energy into looking cute and speaking deferentially and giving people who disrespect us the benefit of the doubt. Speaking up for ourselves, setting boundaries, declaring that the issues that affect our lives are important in the public square, taking up space on the bus or in the bathroom, these are the actions that get us labeled as aggressive, or shrill, or any number of names that I can’t say in the pulpit. If only we would be nice, we are told, other people would listen to us. If only we wouldn’t be condescending by reminding people that we actually have experience or education or first-hand knowledge that could help us find solutions, we might be likable enough to lead. If only we stopped alienating people with our insistence for justice, we could all come together.
As Esther demonstrated, there are occasions for the art of diplomacy. Listening is part of the work. Kindness is part of the work. And. We can’t be limited to niceness alone. In the story, Haman’s order under the seal of King Ahasuerus, the order to attack all the Jews, could not be rescinded. The second order, after Haman’s removal, made it legal for the Jews to defend themselves against state-sanctioned violence. Sometimes stopping violence directly, not nicely, is part of the work. If being polite were the broad, golden road to equality, we would have been there years ago. So those of us who are marginalized on the axis of gender ask, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” This International Women’s Day, those of us who are women, or non-binary, and/or Transgender will remember to be for ourselves.
At the same time, it is the nature of oppression to try to divide people who are natural allies. The forces that threaten women from all races and incomes, the forces that threaten Transgender women and men and non-binary people, the forces that try to sequester authority within whiteness and maleness, these forces are linked. Being for ourselves also means being for our siblings who are marginalized along the axis of gender. For white, cisgender women like myself, being for ourselves means being for the safety of the Transgender women of color who are in mortal danger every day. Women’s lives are worth saving. For women who can afford new clothes, being for ourselves means being for the wellbeing of women who work in the factories where our clothes are made. Women’s work is worth paying for. For those of us who have access to health care, being for ourselves means being for all people who need doctors, nurses, and medicines for their sexual health, birth control, gender care, abortion, and pre- and post-natal care. Health care labeled as women’s health care is a human right, and we know that these categories of care affect people of all genders. If I am for myself, I am against misogyny in all its forms. We will be bold for change, unapologetic in our movement for equality.
Rabbi Hillel also asks, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” If you don’t identify as being negatively affected by misogyny, this is where you come in. We are all part of the interdependent web of existence. What affects one affects us all. Sometimes connecting the dots from one form of harm to another is too abstract to notice immediately. Sometimes we benefit in obvious ways from oppression, even as our bodies and souls are destroyed in other ways. Cisgender men benefit in some ways from patriarchy. They get higher salaries on average, reduced risk of violence, and a greater likelihood that they will be heard when they speak, among other things.
Patriarchy also gives men an increased risk of being bullied if they veer too closely to feminine patterns of behavior. It leads society to punish men for maintaining a connection with their emotional and inner life. It gets in the way of true and trusting relationships. Misogyny negatively affects men. Being for ourselves and being for others can mean the same thing when it comes to dismantling oppression.
No matter what our gender, we can ignore the personal impact for a minute and ask, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” Let us be bold for change, bringing about a world of justice and compassion, even if it means letting go of some of the apparent advantages of an unjust system of privilege.
Then there is the question of timing. If not now, when? Procrastinating on boldness might come from fear. Esther feared the consequences if she approached the king and he did not recognize her permission to speak. Putting off the time of action may come from a belief that we don’t matter or that our actions don’t make a difference. That’s a different kind of fear, a fear of insignificance, a fear of trying something and failing. Truly I say to you that there will be losses before there are victories. No sacred text, no work of great literature, no meaningful understanding of history leads us to believe that major changes for justice and equality happen quickly. We must overcome the perfectionist idolatry of success and choose to do the right thing now, even if we do not expect to see immediate results. You matter. Your voice matters. There are real risks to speaking out. There are also risks to our minds and souls and bodies for keeping silent.
The “now” moment does not mean that action happens without thinking. Esther made a choice to act in the “now” moment, but her plan unfolded over two days, even when the clock was ticking on the royal decree of genocide. She took the time to reflect with her circle of support, to engage in spiritual practice. Resilience and strategy are important. Do justice now. Love mercy now. Make strategic plans for justice and mercy that stretch out through weeks and months and years.
For such a time as this, we ground ourselves in the heritage of our living tradition and in the sacred texts where we find meaning, remembering that justice and mercy are some of the hallmarks of the sacred, eternal presence. For such a time as this, we join together with all who would cooperate with the forces that create and uphold life. For such a time as this, we advocate for ourselves, and we work to relieve the suffering of people who are not ourselves. Be brave. Be who you were meant to be. And help create a world where everyone can thrive as their whole selves. Let us be warriors for the spirit of love.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen