Transformation and Prophecy: Holy Lessons from RBG

Shabbat Shuvah 5781/2020

It’s hard for us to know when we are in a big moment. We remember where we were when JFK was assassinated, we remember where we were at 9 am on 9/11/2001. But most of the time, the really important and transformative moments, are more than just one moment.

Take, for example, today, yesterday, or, frankly any day of these last six months. Years from now, when there is a vaccine, we are going to tell stories of what it was like during Covid-19. How we had services on Zoom, how our kids did virtual school, how our little ones learned how to wear masks properly, how we lost 200,000 Americans in such a short amount of time.

But, there was a big moment this week which had so many small important moments that led up to it – the memorial service for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.   Friday marked the first time a woman and Jew lay in state at the Capital.

Poppy Harlow of CNN said the following immediately after the service: “This was a big moment for Jewish-Americans has to be deeply meaningful, to hear that Hebrew prayer in the Halls in Congress that has not been heard in a moment like this before.”

On Friday, Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt led a service in our Capitol, singing Min HaMeitzar, reciting the El Maleh Rachamim, a eulogy packed with Jewish teachings.

But, through Rabbi Holtzblatt’s words, I also learned something else: big moments come from a series of smaller moments. Today is Shabbat Shuvah. It is the Shabbat during the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, a day, I think, when we have to reflect upon what Teshuvah really means.

And here’s what I learned on Friday – how we transform ourselves, and society; and the definition of what it means to be a prophet and a Judge.

Teshuvah = Transformation

When we think of change, we think of aha moments. We are inspired by a lightning bolt, and then, we change. But this isn’t the Jewish way.

We are changed not by one moment, but a series of moments – and no one knew that more than Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

Rabbi Holtzblatt quoted Deuteronomy, the famous line from parashat Shoftim – Tzedek Tzedek Tirdoff – Justice Justice, you shall pursue. This pasuk was framed as a piece of art in Justice Ginsburg’s chambers. And then, she taught another layer of Torah:

“The rabbinic tradition assigns meaning to every single word in the Torah, so there must be a reason why tzedek, ‘justice,’ is written twice. Ibn Ezra, a medieval rabbi, teaches that the word tzedek is repeated here in order to teach that time and time again, all of the days of your life you must pursue justice.”

The Notorious RBG, as she became known for a new generation, lived her life talking small, but powerful, important steps. “Her life was a life of persistence, resilience, and a commitment to never stop.”

But, does Judaism also believe this? Thinking back to the stories of the Torah, we see that the biggest moments were quick and strong – the Ten Plagues, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, and receiving the Torah at Sinai.

But, in these weeks, we actually learn what the Torah has to say about transformation – teshuvah.

In Rabbi Alan Lew’s book, This Is Real, And You Are Completely Unprepared, he quotes psukim from last week’s parashah, Nitzavim

And it shall come to pass when all these things have come upon you,

The blessings and the curses that I have set before you,

And they will rise up again [ha-shev-ota] in your heart

Among the nations to whom the Lord your God has driven you

And you will return [v-shav-ta] to the Lord your God and listen to God’s voice.…

Then the Lord your God will turn [v-shav] your captivity

And have compassion on you and turn [v-shav]

And gather you in from all the nations where you have been scattered.…

And God will circumcise the foreskin of your heart

So that you can love God with all your heart and with all your soul.…

And you will turn [ta-shuv] and you will hear the voice of God

And do all the commandments which I have commanded you this day.…

Deuteronomy 30:11-14

The root of the word shuv is repeated seven times. Seven is an important number. When we see seven, we think of being whole – seven days of the week, seven flames on the menorah. Think about how seven is used in our tradition, especially weddings. When we get married in Judaism, Kidushin, we are transformed from one single individual to a couple that is like one.

Rabbi Lew comments on the repetition of Teshuvah, as he calls it, transformation:

“This passage shows us the complexity of transformation. Transformation is not something that happens once and for all time. The people turn three different times in this passage, and as it closes, they are promised a great blessing, but only if they continue to turn in the future. Transformation does not have a beginning, a middle, or an end. We never reach the end of Teshuvah. It is always going on. We are awake for a moment, and then we are asleep again. Teshuvah seems to proceed in a circular motion. Every step away is also a step toward home. And it may never be clear to us that the work of transformation has borne fruit. This is usually the case in the realm of spiritual practice. Real spiritual transformation invariably takes a long time to manifest itself in our lives. Spectacular, immediate results—sudden changes in aspect or in the way we see the world—are always suspect, and usually suggest a superficial rather than a profound transformation. Profound transformation only manifests itself over time. When Jacob has his great vision of the ladder and realizes he has been visited by God, he exclaims out loud, “My God! God has been in this place all along and I never knew it!” From this moment of epiphany, we expect he will be changed. We are disappointed when he continues to behave like the same manipulative schmo he has always been. But when we look at the larger arc of Jacob’s life, we see that this vision really does effect a profound change in him. It’s just that this change isn’t evident right away. It takes more than twenty years for it to take root.”

When we look at this moment on Friday, you think, how did we get to it?

Justice Ginsburg graduated at the top of her class at Columbia law school, but she didn’t get one job offer in New York. Many would have given up, and I wouldn’t blame them, but not Justice Ginsburg.

She once commented: “I get out of law school with top grades, and no law firm would hire me. I end up teaching and it gave me the time to devote myself to the movement to evening the rights of women and men.”

As a lawyer, she won equality for women and men not as one swift victory, as Rabbi Holtzblatt put it – brick by brick, case by case, through meticulous careful lawyering.

Through this, she changed the course of American law.

Think back our journey as a people – we had Sinai, when we had the laser light show, but we were only truly transformed after parashaht Mishpatim, the very next parashah when we receive law after law.

What it means to be a Jew is to take these small, purposeful and powerful steps.

Halachah, Jewish law, comes from that root Holech, to walk, to take steps. Performing mitzvah after mitzvah means we walk the path. You must watch over the widow, orphan and stranger – over and over again.

Rabbi Holtzblatt ended her eulogy by saying: she was our prophet, our north star, our strength.

Rabbi Holtzblatt wasn’t speaking in platitudes. She got to the essence of what prophesy really is. Prophets are not prophets because they talk to God; they are prophets because they tell the people difficult truths that challenge us.

In his book, HumanKind: A Hopeful History, author Rutger Bregman says that we humans have a problem – we are too polite. I know, it sounds pretty unbelievable if you are on social media, but here’s how he explains it.

He said, “Sometimes our societal instinct get in the way of truth and of equity. Because consider: haven’t we all seen someone treated unfairly yet kept silent to avoid being disagreeable? Haven’t we all swallowed our words just to keep the peace? Haven’t we all accused those who fight for their rights of rocking the boat?… History teaches that progress often begins with people…whom others feel to be preachy or even unfriendly. People with the nerve to get on their soapbox at social occasions. Who raise unpleasant subjects that may you uneasy. Cherish these people, because they’re the key to progress.”

Rabbi Holtzblatt shared, “Even when her views did not prevail, she still fought. In recent years, she became famous for dissents, despair was not an option. RBG said, “Dissents are for a future age; it’s not simply to say my colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way, but the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that the dissenters hop that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow. Her dissents were not cries of defeat, but blueprints for the future.”

The Talmud is famous for this – all minority opinions are recorded, and sometimes they become the majority.

How do we transform ourselves and our world? As the ‘Glorious’ RBG taught us, one step at a time.

What does it mean to be a prophet? To pursue justice, especially when it is not popular. When we see inequity, we challenge it because there are some things that are more important than not rocking the boat.

Let’s remember that we are living in big moments – Justice Justice You Shall Pursue – one moment at a time.

Baruch Dayan HaEmet – Blessed be the True Judge


About the Author
David Baum serves as rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Kodesh, a small (but mighty) Conservative Kehillah (community) in Boca Raton, Florida, sits on the Rabbinical Assembly Social Justice Commission, former president of the Southeast Region of the Rabbinical Assembly and Palm Beach County Board of Rabbis.
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