Justice Ginsburg, fear, and the future

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death felt like a sucker punch.

Yes, we know that dying on Shabbat is supposed to be wondrous thing, a sign of having been a special person, an unusual good person, someone beloved by God. We’ve also been told since Friday night that dying on Rosh Hashanah is another mark of God’s particular love. And Justice Ginsburg’s dying day was just on the cusp of both Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah.


But this has been a terrible year. There’s no sugar coating that truth, no matter how many silver linings we try to see. We’ve learned what we should value, we’ve learned the virtues of patience and silence and home, we’ve learned the importance of community and how it can be formed and grow in unusual ways, like those plants that grow in glass with their roots fed by air and water rather than by soil.

But it’s not worth it. This year, with its fires and storms, with the virus that has killed an unimaginable 200,000 of us and taken down the economy with it; this year, which has deprived us of the company of our friends and extended family and the joys of singing in public and made walking in public barefaced almost as bad as walking in public bare… well, you get it. It’s been a terrible year.

The political divisions that have been whipped up into red and white hot rage to cover the failures have done what they were meant to do. Large swathes of us hate other large swathes of others of us. It’s not good.

But there we were, about to start the new year. So many of us thought about the traditional wishes we wish each other — health, happiness, prosperity. A sweet year. A good year.

Many of us still offered each other those wishes, often filtered through reality. A better year. A year of healing. A year with less hate. Fewer divisions. A year to remember the 200,000 dead but to fight off the virus and to restart our businesses and to dig out of this morass of unease and ill will.

And then Justice Ginsburg died.

Some of found out on Friday night, some on Saturday morning. Some few, who not only stay away from electronics but also avoid print newspapers and friends who do read them, didn’t learn about it until Sunday evening. For many of us, it was facing the abyss. Only more ugliness, more degradation of our values and beliefs stretch in front of us.

My rabbi, Roly Matalon of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan, dealt with it straightforwardly in his sermon. It is normal and right that we feel fear now, he said. It is appropriate to be afraid. The future in front of us is not the future we thought we saw last year. This one is legitimately terrifying.

But while fear is not a pleasant emotion, growth can come out of it. Roly talked about Adam and Eve, Hagar, Isaac, and the midwives Shifra and Puah, all of whose stories are in the first two books of the Torah. They all were afraid; they all pushed ahead and they changed the world. It clearly is not that simple — but we have no choice. Forward is the only direction available to us.

On Sunday, my husband and I walked over to Broadway. Local shuls had arranged to have shofar blowers on the islands between the northbound and southbound lanes at every intersection from the 60s to 110th Street. At 4, all of them blew the shofar, not just one long blast but all of its different cries, as the machzor dictates.

There were dozens of people on every street corner that we could see; everyone was masked, and we all kept socially distanced from everyone not in our family group, but still people were able to greet each other and talk until the blasts started. It was a lovely day; the sky was deep blue and the clouds were puffy and white. The weather was exactly right for standing outside. The shofar blasts compete with traffic noises, but there was some symbolism in that too.

The sounds were broken and they were healing. They held pain; they also held hope. The crowds of us on the sidewalk, being in community while staying apart, showed pain and hope combined. As the shofar began to sound, we all got quiet. We strained to hear, and we did hear.

We were crying for ourselves, for our community, for our country. We were hoping for a better future. We were standing in the sunlight. We were deciding that we would do what we can to help that happen.

We hope that our readers have an easy and meaningful fast, that the ravages of this time do not take away from the wild exhilaration of the end of Neilah, and that the final shofar blast on Monday night rouses us to do what we can to make this a better world.

Gmar chatimah tovah.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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