2009 Baccalaureate Remarks by Ruth Messinger

Following is the text of "Justice as a Spiritual Practice," by Ruth W. Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, as prepared for delivery at the Stanford Baccalaureate Celebration on June 13, 2009

L.A. Cicero Ruth Messinger

Ruth Messinger

Good morning. I would like to begin by extending my most heartfelt gratitude to the Stanford faculty and administration and especially to the Office for Religious Life, which have given me the honor and opportunity to speak with you today. This is a triumphant moment for the graduates and your families, and I am truly humbled to be part of it.

A word, first, to all the parents, grandparents, family and friends who helped the graduates reach this day. Let me confer on each of you the degree of “PST”—putting someone through. And let me remind you, as your hearts swell with pride: These young people are now adults. To be sure, they are adults without the benefit of your years of experience. But that is the thing about experience. No one can have it or create it for anyone else.

Your experiences are not the ones waiting for them. They must create their own. We must give them the right to make choices … and to make mistakes. In fact, the best present you could give your graduate this weekend would be to tell him or her one of the biggest mistakes you made and, hopefully, the way you found your way out.

I do not advise you to do this so that they will avoid that specific mistake, although perhaps they will. I advise you to do it because they need to understand that that is the way to who they will become—by making their own choices and their own mistakes.

And now, to the graduates: Make those choices—for yourself and for your own future. Have faith in your capacity to create your own experiences, to learn from your own mistakes, to build your own life and give it as much meaning as you can. Strike to make a mark on the society in which you live.

Take risks. Be bold, courageous and strong. Remember, you are what you do. Not what you think or what you want or what you dream. You are what you do.

You are the people who will shape the next century of our country and our world. And unfortunately that world is broken, a world of extreme poverty and obscene wealth, a world in which, as astonishing as this sounds, the 500 richest people earn more than the 416 million poorest. This is a world which offends our commitment to fairness and insults our belief in justice.

These inequities are further challenged by the current global recession. It will be harder for some of you to find jobs than it should be. There are people we may know, people here today, who have suffered the loss of jobs, health coverage and retirement savings. We must try to help them maintain their dignity and self-worth, for they still have much to contribute.

There are others we may know whose investment portfolios have shrunk. They might think their lives have been substantially altered—and in some ways they are right—but for many of the world’s poorest, shrinkage in their portfolio means going from one meal a day to none.

When we have less money than we used to have it hurts; it may limit our options and it can damage our sense of self. But we must remember that money is not everything. It is a tool. Our values and our integrity are the true essence of who we are as individuals and as a society, and we cannot let them diminish because our financial resources have shrunk.

We will be judged ultimately more by our values than by our monetary value. And there is no value more important than working to improve the way things are.

I hope that as you shape your lives and build your futures you will make the choice to act for justice. Engage the problems that threaten the future of our nation and the world, and embrace a responsibility to people in need, both those in the Global South and those struggling in our own country. They need your commitment.

Rabbi Marshall Meyer wrote in a piece called “Anonymous Heroes” that we must search out “the sparks of sanctity in our mundane lives,” that while most of us may never be recognized as heroes, there is a kind of heroism in finding these sparks of holiness, in taking what may feel like mundane actions in our daily lives and “investing them with something transcendent.”

Regardless of what you do next or at any future point in your lives, you can find ways to engage in this heroic and holy effort to solve humanity’s biggest problems. You can be part of this sacred search for justice. Of course you can make it your life’s work, but you can also engage with it at graduate school, at any job site, as a voter and as an individual seeking that higher sense of self.

When I was growing up my mother worked at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and I had the opportunity to spend time with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a faculty member regarded then and now as one of modern Judaism’s most influential thinkers. Once, when a reporter pulled him aside during a civil rights march with Dr. King in the South and asked why he wasn’t praying, he replied, “I am. I’m praying with my feet!”

“I’m praying with my feet,” he said! By pursuing social justice, Heschel believed, we can encounter the divine. We can understand in the deepest recesses of our souls what it means to be alive, why God put us on Earth, what is our value to humanity. We may not ever be able to understand why society permits inequality, intolerance, hunger, disease and genocide in the first place, but we can understand what we can do to stop them.

We can, we must, do this work now, in the 21st century, and each of you can be a part of the effort. Stanford University gave you some of the tools; others you have had all along. It is really very much a question of how you use the resources you do have—of money, yes, but also of values, commitment, energy, time, leadership and organizing skill—to make a difference.

There are, as you all know, national and global problems of climate change and of health care, of shelter and of sanitation. But the worst consequences of growing inequity are seen today in the eyes of the children, those dying of hunger in Africa and those neglected in our own communities, the children here or there who are unable to get health care or quality education, the children whose futures are being unfairly curtailed as we sit here this morning.

In our own country—still, by far, the richest country in the world, where 12 million children were below the poverty line last year—the assumption is that 17 million children will have fallen below that line by the end of this year, their families coping with unemployment, rising food costs and the disappearance of affordable housing.

Globally, children of every race and nationality have the same problems, but they are of an almost unimaginably larger magnitude. There are 27,000 children a day—yes, 27,000 children a day—who lose their lives to an abject poverty which is both a cause and an effect of hunger and disease.

There is no easy way to say this and no easy way to hear it. But I pray that you do hear it, and that you do not retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed. Let me repeat that: We cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed. There is work for us to do, and these children need our commitment if we are not to lose more of them to inequity and injustice.

For the first time in history, the world has the knowledge, the resources and the capacity to move all people out of poverty, to effect change in every corner of the globe. The question is whether we will all take part in this effort.

We can act individually. Think for a minute of what contact you have had with other countries and their citizens since you woke this morning. Did you drink coffee or cocoa picked in the developing world? Do you know where every article of your clothing was made? We can respond, paying attention to what we eat, where we buy our coffee and our clothes, how we limit our impact on the environment, what we do with our time and our money.

We can act collectively, at the governmental level, to ensure that the world’s industrialized nations invest in creating greater equity. They can provide full forgiveness on debt owed by developing countries. They can dismantle trade agreements that allow their countries and multi-national corporations to become wealthier at the expense of the world’s poor. And for the price of two months of war in Iraq each year, we could put all children in school, eliminate avoidable infant death, wipe out malaria and cut global poverty in half by 2015.

Significant progress has been made, but there is much more to do, and in some ways and places the situation is now getting worse. We have a long journey ahead.

What is required, first, is that we embrace our responsibility to humanity, commit to help those with whom we do not share a faith or a neighborhood, a country, a language or a political structure. We must bend our minds and our voices, our energies and our material resources to helping those most in need, both at home and abroad.

What is required, next, is that we keep these intentions front and center in our own lives. If you pursue wealth (and feel free to do so), that pursuit should not define you. Whether you are raising children, creating art, healing bodies, making money or seeing the world, you will—each and every one of you—have opportunities to speak up for diversity, to vote for equity, to demand inclusion, to stand for justice.

Rabbi Heschel wrote: “The Eternal has not created the universe so that we might have opportunities to satisfy greed, envy and ambition. … We have not survived so that we might waste our years in vulgar vanities. God is waiting for us to redeem the world.”

And when asked, in one of his final interviews, what advice he had for young people, he said: “Let them be sure that every deed counts, that every word has power, and that we all can do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all frustrations and all disappointments. And, above all, let them remember … to build a life as if it were a work of art.”

As you build your life, as you create the person you will be, keep your eye on the pursuit of justice. Own the problems you see, accept responsibility and commit to work for change. It is important to be involved on a personal level—to feed the hungry, work directly with the poor, be of service in the world. But service alone is not enough. Be ready, also, to tackle the root causes of injustice, to demand new policies and to embrace advocacy.

Do not do this work by yourself. Step forward, get involved and then exercise your power to mobilize, to organize, to convince others. Be inclusive, build a community of activists, and convey a sense of hope and possibility to those with whom you work.

And undertake these efforts with a mixture of patience, of hope and of fun. We need to understand the often complex, always too slow, ways to get from here to there. It will not be easy, but, I can promise you, the rewards will be great. We need hope, the ingredient that keeps us going when we might otherwise quit.

And don’t forget the fun. The end doesn’t justify the means; the means are the ends. If we want joy and friendship and laughter at the end of the struggle, then we must have them along the way.

This is what I wish for all of you and for all of us. Hone your political will and your moral determination. Act with integrity, allow time for learning and reflection, but do not shy away from action. Invest in building a world for those children, wherever they live, who so desperately need our help. The child in a homeless shelter in Los Angeles or the child holding an empty bowl in the slums of Delhi might one day cure Parkinson’s disease or stop global warming.

The creation of a more just society, then, is all of our responsibility. It is how we can express our devotion to God, how we can create greater harmony in this broken world. It requires that we understand ourselves as responsible for the other, learn that our actions have consequences for those around us and for those on the other side of the world. We live our values, we honor God when we help those in need, work with them for greater justice in their lives, use the affluence and influence of our community on behalf of everyone.

As our text teaches, the answers are not in heaven and not beyond the sea. As long as there is poverty, violence and oppression any place, we are all from an underdeveloped world, and we should be working to set it right.

There is a famous Jewish commentary which observes that it is not our obligation to complete the task but we cannot refuse to participate. A similar thought was articulated centuries later by Archbishop Romero, the cleric who worked to protect the peasants of El Salvador. He wrote:


We accomplish in our lifetime

Only a tiny fraction of

The magnificent enterprise

That is God’s work.

This is what we are about.

We plant seeds

That one day will grow.

We water the seeds already planted

Knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that

Will need further development …

We may never see

The end results,

But that is the difference …

We are prophets

Of a future not our own.


Heed the observation of Rabbi Heschel that “living is not a private affair of the individual, it is what we do with God’s time, what we do with God’s world.” Accept the challenge to do the most you can with your time in this world, constructing lives of commitment where acts of loving kindness and acts of political courage are woven into the fabric of your days.