Blessed is The True Judge
There is a blessing for just about every occasion in Jewish life. What do we say when we first hear the news that someone has died? “Baruch Dayan HaEmet.” “Praised is the Judge of Truth.” Most blessings begin with the longer formula: “Praised are You, Adonai, Ruler of the Universe…” but when death comes, the emotions of sadness or shock are so overwhelming there isn’t room for all that praise. Just three words are offered in humility before the God of Life and Death, before the Knower of all Mysteries, before the Eternal One. “Baruch Dayan HaEmet” is a statement of heavy-hearted acceptance.
When I first heard the news of the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Erev HaShanah, these words took on new meaning. “Blessed is The True Judge” was praise to God for gifting a human being with intellectual brilliance, for gifting a small woman with physical stamina to work so tirelessly for eighty-seven years, for gifting a Jew the opportunity to serve her country and shape human history.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a proud Jewish woman. Because she was rooted in her Jewish wisdom, she was able to pursue her path with the confidence of the ages. She said: “I am a judge born, raised, and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of the Jewish tradition. I hope, in my years on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, I will have the strength and the courage to remain constant in the service of that demand.”
A 13-year old Ruth Bader wrote an essay entitled “One People” a little more than a year after Bergen-Belsen was liberated. It was published in her synagogue’s bulletin:
“The war has left a bloody trail and many deep wounds not too easily healed. Many people have been left with scars that take a long time to pass away. We must never forget the horrors which our brethren were subjected to in Bergen-Belsen and other Nazi concentration camps. Then, too, we must try hard to understand that for righteous people hate and prejudice are neither good occupations nor fit companions. Rabbi Alfred Bettleheim once said: ‘Prejudice saves us a painful trouble, the trouble of thinking.’
In our beloved land families were not scattered, communities not erased nor our nation destroyed by the ravages of the World War. Yet, dare we be at ease? We are part of a world whose unity has been almost completely shattered. No one can feel free from danger and destruction until the many torn threads of civilization are bound together again. We cannot feel safer until every nation, regardless of weapons or power, will meet together in good faith, the people worthy of mutual association.
There can be a happy world and there will be once again, when men create a strong bond towards one another, a bond unbreakable by a studied prejudice or a passing circumstance. Then and only then shall we have a world built on the foundation of the Fatherhood of God and whose structure is the Brotherhood of Man.”
Hanging on the wall of her chambers were the words of Torah: “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof,” “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20) She fulfilled this mitzvah with which every ounce of her being. Not only did she do the work itself, she created the opportunity to be able to do the work! Perhaps this is why the repetition of the word “Justice.” It is not enough to work for justice. More often than not we first have to work to create the environment in which justice can be pursued.
The simple and eloquent eulogy delivered by Justice Ginsburg’s Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt preceded the chanting of Eil Maleh Rachamim against the backdrop of the stately pillars of the Supreme Court. You can watch it here.
An excerpt: “To be born into a world that does not see you, that does not believe in your potential, that does not give you a path for opportunity or a clear path for education and despite this to be able to see beyond the world you are in, to imagine that something can be different, that is the job of a prophet and it is the rare prophet who not only imagines a new world, but also makes that new world a reality in her lifetime. This was the brilliance and vision of Justice Ruth Bader Ginzburg. The Torah is relentless in reminding, instructing, and commanding that we never forget those who live in the shadows. Those whose freedom and opportunity are not guaranteed. Thirty-six times we are taught we must not forget the stranger. Twelve times we are told to care for the widow or the orphan. It is the Torah’s call to action and is also the promise written in our Constitution… This was Justice Ginsburg’s life’s work: to insist that the Constitution would deliver on its promise, that ‘We the People’ would include all the people. She carried out that work in every chapter of her life.”
A Woman of Valour
It is said that only the most righteous die on the eve of the New Year. If it was decreed last Rosh Hashanah that she would die in 5780, because of the merit of her lifetime of extraordinary deeds, she was granted the fullness of the year. And now she can rest.
Rabbi Karen Kriger Bogard wrote this version of Eshet Chayil from Proverbs to describe Justice Ginsburg.
A Woman of Valor, she is difficult to find.
She was more precious than her white lace collar.
Humanity placed its trust in her and profited eternally.
She brought people of all races and all creeds and all genders, good, not harm, all the days of her life.
She sought out those who needed her insight the most, and dutifully, relentlessly did the work of her hands.
She got up while it was still night, knowing the work of justice never sleeps.
She plated seeds that grew into a vineyard over the years with the fruit of her labours.
She invested herself with strength and grace, and made her mind sharp and powerful. .
She opened her hands to the poor and reached out her hands to the needy.
She had no fear.
She was robed in strength and dignity, and she faced the future with optimism.
She opened her mouth with wisdom and lessons of kindness were always on her tongue.
The Gates of Justice are Open Now
On Kol Nidre, we create a scene of a courtroom. The Torah Scrolls, filled with commandments for how to live with justice and righteousness, stand as witnesses against us. God on High is the True Judge who remembers our deeds – our actions and our inactions. We stand to testify that we have little merit, but pray, nevertheless, for a compassionate ruling. We stand to testify that humanity is failing our God-given task to be stewards of the earth, which has been entrusted to us. We pray, nevertheless, for the resolve to recommit ourselves anew.
Yita Rachel bat Natan v’Sira Leah did more than her part. Now the work is left to us.
I’m pleased to share with you that on the first day of the new year, the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem secured a Supreme Court victory in one of its longest-standing cases. It is a victory for removing racism from the Chief Rabbinate. A victory for the fulfillment of the ideals set in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. You can read about it here.
I wish each of you a Chatimah Tovah. May it be a year of righting the wrongs, of healing the wounds, of mending the breaks, and creating greater justice. And may we all be written and sealed into the Book of Life.