On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, at around 8 o’clock in the morning, a flock of sheep came ambling over the hilltop of Titora, on the edge of my town of Modiin, Israel. Their woolly presence seemed à propos, as their arrival coincided with the recitation of the U-netaneh Tokef prayer by our small ad hoc garden minyan — an early-morning gathering of socially-distanced, mask-wearing friends and neighbors.
The central poem of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy, U-netaneh Tokef (“Let us speak of the sacred power of this day,”) dates back at least to the 8th century, as evidenced by a copy discovered in the Cairo Geniza. In these awe-inspiring lines, the poet describes how,
All that lives on earth will pass before You like a flock of sheep.
As a shepherd examines the flock, making each sheep pass under the staff,
So You will review and number and count, Judging each living being, determining the fate of everything in creation, inscribing their destiny.
I am not a great believer in mystical signs and portents, and in other circumstances might have considered the passing sheep as an unexpected bonus of praying outdoors under the trees with friends in the midst of Israel’s second coronavirus lockdown.
But then I turned on my computer after darkness had fallen on Sunday night at the conclusion of Rosh Hashanah, and I discovered that US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died on Friday night, the first night of Rosh Hashanah, at age 87, and a deep sadness fell upon me.
Also, I keep thinking about those sheep.
My sadness at Ginsburg’s death is compounded by Donald Trump’s vow to nominate a woman for US Supreme Court vacancy within a week: inevitably, a conservative, anti-abortion candidate who, from all reports, will be the polar opposite of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This, despite Senate Republicans’ insistence, in 2016, that the seat left vacant by the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in February of that year not be filled due to the presidential election that was then about nine months away. Indeed, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell refused to let President Barack Obama’s pick, Merrick Garland, even have a hearing.
Trump’s breakneck pace is one that Ginsburg anticipated: Just days before her death, and less than seven weeks before the 2020 US Presidential election, she dictated this statement to her granddaughter Clara Spera: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.” Even though everyone – including Trump – is issuing odes to her fierce devotion to justice, it’s very likely that her wish will be ignored.
Like many others who are mourning her death, I came to feel that I knew Ginsburg, even if I didn’t know her personally. I felt so protective of her that I automatically added the words, “May she live to be 120,” whenever I said her name. I bought her book of essays and speeches, My Own Words, and watched RBG, the documentary about her life. I read the illustrated picture book I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark to my kids dozens of times.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a trailblazing feminist icon in dozens of ways. In 1956, she enrolled in Harvard Law School, one of only nine women in a Harvard Law School class of more than 500.
As director of the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, she argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court between 1973 and 1976, winning five. In one of her most notable dissents, she fiercely opposed the evisceration of The Voting Rights Act of 1965, a dissent that earned her the title of the Notorious RBG. She was unequivocal in her support for a woman’s right to an abortion, saying “This is something central to a woman’s life, to her dignity. It’s a decision that she must make for herself. And when government controls that decision for her, she’s being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.”
Ginsburg’s pursuit of justice was deeply grounded in her Jewish faith. In 2018, she explained that, “I am a judge, born, raised and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice, for peace and for enlightenment runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition.” According to the New York Times, Justice Bader Ginsburg was deeply identified with her Jewish faith and did not sit in court on High Holy Days, even though she was not especially observant and rarely attended services. Her life’s work, she said, had been shaped by the Holocaust: “It makes you more empathetic to other people who are not insiders, who are outsiders.”
According to Julie Cohen, the director of the documentary “RBG,” Ginsburg had “a sort of toughness in every level of her life,” a determination that was “mirrored in everything she did.” Even after dealing with five bouts of cancer, she continued showing up at court, working through the Covid_19 pandemic, listening in on the phone sessions and asking questions. “Whatever came her way, she was going to come back at it with as much determination as a person could bring,” Cohen told NPR.
Which brings me back to those rambling sheep, passing by only a scant few hours after Ginsburg’s death.
Despite the terrifying images of the U-netaneh Tokef prayer–the listings of those who will die by water or by fire, by sword or by beast, famine or thirst, plague or strangling, stoning and suffering–there is something inherently peaceful and comforting about the enumeration of sheep, an order amid the chaos, a promise of continuity through plagues and tumult. Ginsburg personified this continuity, serving as a Justice on the Supreme Court for 27 years, proudly stating that it was her work that sustained her. Even through the turmoil of a pandemic, she persevered until her time had come.
It’s work that we ourselves need to continue. To quote Amanda Klasing, Interim Co-Director, Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch: “We should work to ensure that Justice Ginsberg’s replacement on the Supreme Court shares that same commitment to gender equality. It will require everyone who believes that women’s rights are human rights to raise their voice, no matter how petite, and to continue the fight for equality of all people.”