Acting in Real Time

Abbie and her grandfather, Rav Tsair

Of all the forms of worship I know about, Biblical religion is the one most wedded to chronology. It carries the message that the action called for cannot be postponed. It must be done now. There is a concomitant duty to remember and commemorate, perhaps because memory is the net in which the now-of-action is retained.

My grandfather who — in my child’s mind – bore a striking physical resemblance to God, once intervened in my consciousness in a fashion illustrative of this point. I had been sitting on the rug at his feet and talking with my sister about the oddities of memory. How is it that we remember some incidents clearly, while others are unaccountably forgotten?

Grandpa leaned down, extending a right-hand forefinger toward me to say,

You will remember this moment

all your life! All your life,

you will remember it!

He was right, obviously, since I did.

The first time I telephoned the organization devoted to academic excellence that Jerry ran in Washington, to describe the college administration’s threats to Brooklyn College’s award-winning core curriculum, and to ask if they could help, Jerry said that, first of all, he’d need documentary evidence of this change in previous college policy.

The following day, the documents were en route to Jerry. I’d learned from experience that the thing needed must be supplied as soon as feasible, because after that something else will be needed just as urgently.

In 1776, Delaware Delegate Caesar A. Rodney got an urgent request to ride to Philadelphia in time for the meeting of the Second Continental Congress the next day. They were scheduled to vote on the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. That night, a thunderstorm was raging. As I understand it, Rodney was feeling distinctly unwell. A decision to stay home would have been justifiable. Instead, he rode through the night to cast the tie-breaking vote for our nation’s independence. Such is the moral face of timeliness.

On December 21st, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the Joint Meeting of Congress to express his country’s gratitude for American assistance already received, and to ask for additional help to meet Ukraine’s ongoing defensive needs.

We live in an ironical age. So we’re psychologically well-barricaded against apparent heroes. Despite all that, as I watched him close up (which the camera permits us to do), it seemed to me that here was another man with an accurate sense of history’s times and chances. As he stood through the standing ovations, his eyes did not widen to take in the applause as anything personal.  

Zelensky stayed on message, and his message was a wide one. If we permit the tyrants of our global neighborhoods to batter adjacent, nonsubmissive peoples and their civic structures for the purpose of forcing surrender, we will be less able to stop tyranny’s next usurpations. 

The fate of nations sometimes hangs in the balance in just that way. It’s not a case of over-dramatization. Rather, it’s an instance of the Iron Law of the Bully. Resist him now. Tomorrow, you’ll be less able to do it. You’ll have fewer resources and more people and nations who no longer trust you.

When an individual representing a nation has the wherewithal rightly to grasp his crisis in its historical context, that phenomenon can be observed in the rightness of the words chosen. Zelensky did not have the eloquence in English of a Lincoln or a Churchill, but the words he chose were visibly integral with the one speaking them.

Something happens to words in that setting. It can perhaps be intimated by reference to the Talmudic sense of language when used at a requisite level of depth, where the speaker is sufficiently integrated with what he is saying. “The actual world is, according to Talmud, a reality composed of words.” Which is to say, words have the possibility of becoming “elements in a conversation with the Creator spoken with intention.”

In such cases, the speaker is not manipulating the audience by feeling out its weaknesses and resentments. Instead, the speaker is alone and listening – trying to hear 

what has to be said.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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