Yair D. Robinson
September 25th, 2020
I know many of us are still reeling from the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. It didn’t help that she passed on Erev Rosh Hashanah—the strangest Rosh Hashanah in our lifetimes—after months of dealing with the Coronavirus, months of protests against injustice, watching the west burn, and years of watching any sense of the common weal seemingly dashed against the rocks. As so many have already said, she was the closest thing to a living saint as one can expect in Jewish tradition. Someone informed by her Jewish values to pursue justice and equality for all. On the wall of her chambers hung an artistic representation of the words tzedek, tzedek tirdof, Justice, Justice, you shall pursue. And Justice Ginsberg took those words to heart and inspired generations to follow.
I was honored to speak this past Sunday night at the Vigil in Wilmington in Justice Ginsberg’s memory. I talked about how one who dies as the Sabbat begins, as the new year begins, is considered especially meritorious. And I also got real. The reality is that our heroes die. Because our heroes are human. Justice Ginsberg lived 87 years, survived cancer, and was active and vital all the way until her passing, and left this mortal coil surrounded by a loving family, leaving behind a proud legacy, clearly evinced by her being the first woman to lie in state in the Capitol, her former clerks forming an honor guard. Who could ask for more in life? Our heroes are human, they are mortal, and to ask them—expect them—to do the work forever is a false expectation. It is magical thinking. It was never their job to shoulder the yoke of heaven by themselves; rather, the responsibility falls to us, to all of us. The legacy of Justice Ginsberg cannot be merely the work she did, as powerful and inspiring and groundbreaking as it was, but rather what we shall do as a result of that work.
Many have compared her passing to the sounding of the shofar, in part because she passed on Rosh Hashanah. But I would draw attention to parashat Ha’azinu, Moses’ last prophecy to the people. We are coming to the end of Moses’ life. Soon he will give his blessing, ascend the mountain, and die, never entering the land promised to this people, the land he has been leading Israel toward his whole life. In this moment, in this testimony, he asks that the whole world listens to his account, and reminds Israel that God is just and never false, and calls Israel to remain devoted to God and God’s ways. Moses can’t do it for them. Moses can’t fulfill the mitzvot for the people; it’s up to Israel to fulfill the covenant themselves, using his prophecy as their guide. So it is now. It is up to us to continue the work, to fulfill it and make it real.
Justice Ginsberg dies with her legacy intact, but the work unfinished. Because the work is never finished. The work in our lifetimes is to reduce the pain and suffering in our midst, to bring comfort and justice into the world to the best of our ability, and then to pass the baton to the next generation. Justice Ginsberg did her part. Now it is time for us to listen carefully and turn again to those tasks. On this Shabbat Shuva, the sabbath of return, may we return, truly, to the path God has laid for us, the work Justice Ginsberg and John Lewis and Al Vorspan and so many others did before us. Let us make it our work. Then, will our days be renewed. Amen.