Beyond Reactivity: Our Calling To Be A Blessing
The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG) on Friday, Sept 18 hit me hard. Like so many, I had my hopes pinned on her to make it through this year, and longer. I had the privilege of watching the documentary on her before the pandemic began last spring. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. I had no idea how much she had influenced my life, and the lives of all the women in my country, for the better.
At a time when women were not generally accepted into law school, this diminutive, soft-spoken, shy woman with a formidable intellect made it through Columbia against all odds, and graduated first in her class. She couldn’t find a job partly because she was a woman with a young child. But that gave her the time and space needed to set her on a path that brought so much good for so many.
Quietly, step by step, and case by case, she started making inroads on equal rights for women and men. Feminists vilified her (and sometimes still do) because she often chose cases where the man was the plaintiff. Few people saw or understood her long-term strategy. Each time she won one of these cases, she used it to bring more equality and equal rights for women as well.
Arguing before a court of men, if she could persuade them of the larger human rights issue – and that the issue also applied to women – she could often get them to see how giving these same rights to women benefited them as well. Small court decision by small court decision, she brought more freedom to both women and men, and additionally, to all who were under-represented.
However, the purpose of this post is not to eulogize RBG. So many have done that with far more eloquence than I. One of the best tributes I’ve read is the viral Facebook post by Molly Conway. Just in case you missed it, her beautiful article is here
I have to admit that when I first heard the news, I felt despair. Without RBG to continue to fight for us, where would we be? Without even realizing it, I (and so many others) had been relying on RBG to do our work for us. And then, as I began to read more about the timing of her death and what it means to say “May her memory be for a blessing,” I was reminded of the larger picture. Instead of being a calamity, her death, at this time and this place, is actually a gift for all of us.
RBG died on the Sabbath, but not just any Sabbath. She passed at the beginning of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. That’s also the day that the Book of Life is open for the next 10 days, the “Days of Awe” in Jewish tradition. In Judaism, when someone dies on Sabbath it means that person is a tzadik (pronounced tsah- DEEK), or someone who is considered “righteous.” But “righteous” has a specific meaning here – it means someone who worked for righteousness – for justice – someone who worked to make the world a better place. There’s more to this timing, though. Tradition has it that someone who passes at the beginning of Rosh Hashana is even more fully a tzadik. It indicates someone was the leader and teacher of a generation.
Correcting injustice, balancing the scales, evaluating the distribution of power and creating equity is tzedakah, the work of righteousness in the Jewish tradition. It is one of the highest callings you can aspire to. RBG did more than simply aspire to that; she lived that calling out every day of her life, even when fighting one of the most painful forms of cancer.
May her memory be for a blessing and for a revolution
It is proper when a Jewish person dies to say “may their memory be for a blessing.” And here is where I finally understood and could take on board the timing of RBG’s passing. This phrase isn’t just a platitude. Rather, it actually means, “May you be like Ruth.” It is we who are called to act to make RBG’s memory a blessing.
But there’s more. You may also have seen the saying “May her memory be for a revolution.” This phrase originated in Israel to honor people who were victims of domestic violence or hate crimes. The phrase was coined “to make clear that their deaths should spur us to action and changemaking,” says Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, Scholar in Residence of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW). Since then, the phrase has been expanded to commemorate victims of police brutality and white supremacy. As Ruttenberg says, this “has become a way of honoring the lives of everyone whose memory inspires us to push for a more just world.”
And that’s when it finally clicked for me. As I mentioned above, I, and so many others, had been counting on Ruth to do it for us. But her passing – and her passing as a tzadik – means we are being called to practice tzedakah (righteousness as I described above). It’s now up to each and every one of us to work for justice – and liberty – and freedom – for all of our fellow humans.
We are called to be the blessing
We are called to be Ruth’s blessing. And we are called to be Ruth’s revolution. As I sat with this, I realized that I can’t think of a more auspicious time to call each and every one of us to this work. It’s the work of the chrysalis that we’ve been in. It’s the work of transformation we’ve been called to do throughout this very difficult year. May each of you – and myself – make her memory be for a blessing by our words, and most importantly, our actions.
P.S. Come get support for moving out of despair and reactivity in these times, and for being a blessing both individually and as a collective, at the online community healing I’m offering on October 11, 2020. If you find yourself in need of more personal support, I also have one or two spots for individual work open right now. Find more info here. Or book a free call with me to talk about how I can serve you.
Image Credit: Design by Emily Burack