Esther’s Responsibility…and Ours

This piece appeared in the current edition (March 2020) of the Washtenaw Jewish News.

And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”

Mordecai’s impassioned plea to Esther in which he urges her to tell the king about the plot against the Jews is one of the most dramatic moments in the book of Esther. He begs her to see her role as queen as enabling her to do what others could not as the Jews faced the threat of annihilation.

We sometimes overlook how dramatic the story of Megillat Esther really is. After all, we are often pre-occupied with costumes and celebration to listen seriously to the story and, of course, we know how the story comes out in the end. 

But, we would do well to pay close attention to the story as it can teach us important lessons about who we are and what we can and must do in life. 

So, in that spirit, let me share one of those important messages.

I am not a huge movie fan but when I see a movie that inspires me, I find myself drawn to seeing it over and over again and the words of the critical scenes always stay with me. 

This is the case with one of my favorite movies: The Verdict, a film directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Paul Newman. If you have not seen the movie, I would urge you to do so. It is a fascinating character study of a human being struggling with his shortcomings and his failures. The movie, as the name implies, is a movie focused on a trial and attorney Frank Galvin’s attempt to win a medical malpractice case against a powerful hospital. 

I will not reveal any more about the film but will share with you Frank Galvin’s speech just before the end of the movie as he summarizes the case for the jury. Reading it will not do it justice. You need to see it and to understand it in context to get the full effect. But, even by reading his words, we are reminded of its critical message. 

It had been a lengthy trial with many dramatic moments and when asked by the judge to give his final statement, Frank Galvin hesitates, crumbles a piece of paper in front of him, stands up, heaves a sigh and says this: 

Well, so much of the time we’re just lost. We say:” Please God tell us what is right, tell us what is true”. There is no justice. The rich win. The poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie and after a time we become dead, a little dead. We think of ourselves as victims and we become victims. We become weak; we doubt ourselves; we doubt our beliefs; we doubt our institutions. We doubt the law. But, today, you are the law. You are the law. Not some book, not the lawyers, not the marble statue or the trappings of the court.., those are just symbols of our desire to be just. They are in fact a prayer, a fervent and frightened prayer. In my religion, we say: “act as if ye had faith and faith will be given to you”. If we are to have faith in justice, we need only to believe in ourselves and act with justice. See, I believe there is justice in our hearts.

It is an impassioned and brilliant speech. 

It brings tears to my eyes each time I watch it. 

And it reminds me of a message from the Megilla. 

The line that resonates with me in thinking about Purim (and certainly about some current events as well) is Galvin’s admonition to the jury that: “You are the law.” He told them that, at that moment, they were the final arbiters of right and wrong. They may have felt reluctant to be in that position and might have had a desire to avoid the critical decision. But, in the same way Mordecai did for Esther, Frank Galvin reminded them that that is where they found themselves and they had to seize the opportunity. 

There are many lessons in the book of Esther. But surely one of the most critical is the importance of acting definitively and courageously when we find ourselves in the position to do so. We must recognize that there come times in life when “we are the law”. There are times when we can determine, if not the fate of another individual or an entire people, then in a smaller but significant way, the direction of the world, whether towards justice or injustice, towards right or wrong. 

Maimonides taught that we should view the entire world as precariously balanced between destruction and redemption so that even one act we perform may tip the balance in the right direction. Do we have the courage to be the agent of positive change in the world?

As Frank Galvin taught us: “we need only believe in ourselves and act with justice.” May we all have the courage to do so when, as we surely will, are presented with the opportunity to make a difference. 

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