Holding Two Jewish Truths: Suffering and Justice
Jewish tradition teaches us that it is possible to hold two opposing truths in our hands, and in our hearts, at the same time. The practice most people think of that highlights this is when we break the glass during a Jewish wedding ceremony. In one of the happiest moments of someone’s life, they break a glass to remember the destruction of the synagogue in Jerusalem. It’s a reminder that at the height of personal joy, we recall the pain and losses suffered and remember a world in need of healing. And it is true that in the past year we have seen the very best of humanity and the very worst.
It was on erev Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, that we learned about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. That Justice Ginsburg died as the sun began to set marking that first night of our new year and High Holy Day is symbolic in our tradition. We’re told that the truly righteous, those we need the most, are left among us until the last minute of the year. Overwhelmed with grief, I felt compelled to go to the Supreme Court both to pay my respects to a personal hero and to mourn with others who I knew felt the same sense of loss.
Moments after arriving, while standing on the steps of the Supreme Court, I heard the blasting sound of a shofar -the ram’s horn which is blown as a literal wake-up call to the Jewish people. It’s a signal that we need to act, to tell us to make amends for past misdeeds and recommit ourselves to a future that is better than the year we are leaving behind. A fitting message as we collectively took up the mantle of Justice Ginsburg’s legacy.
At that moment, I was holding two truths, and am still holding them today. The truth is that people are suffering. The truth is also that people are standing up for justice.
In less than a year, the coronavirus pandemic has cost more than 350,000 lives in our country alone: teachers, nurses, doctors, grocery store clerks, factory workers, long-haul drivers, mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins, beloved friends, and neighbors.
At the same time, during this pandemic, and following the injustices of the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery, white Americans began the process of reckoning and reconciliation with our nation’s history of oppression and persecution, something that has been embedded into every facet of our society. Black activists, indigenous people, people of color, and those of all backgrounds, ages and identities have risen against the threats to Black lives and communities of color; neighbors are organizing to feed each other; Stacey Abrams and others who haven’t made as many headlines including Nse Ufot, LaTosha Brown, Helen Butler, Deborah Scott, and Tamieka Atkins are ensuring every American’s right to vote, and so many people of faith have turned their passion and beliefs into action.
Both the suffering and the pursuit of justice stand true at the same time. We must hold and be responsive to both.
We have the right to celebrate and take pride in the work that has been done, even as we acknowledge how much more there’s still to do.
We have to continue the work of tikkun olam, repairing the world. It is the same work that was pursued by Justice Ginsburg, the work of Rep. John Lewis, of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the work of countless civil rights leaders, faith leaders, and pioneers who created the roadmap we must now follow. We have to fight, even if the odds are against us, and speak out for what is right. In the face of ongoing attempts to remove basic human rights and protections for the most vulnerable populations, including abortion access and affordable health care, it is on each and every one of us to continue making the world a better and more just place.
As we enter into 2021 with a new presidential administration, National Council of Jewish Women believes we have the opportunity to create the America that so many who came before us believed could be a reality. An America that values civil rights, understands abortion as necessary health care, is committed to dismantling the systemic racism rooted in every facet of our nation, protects religious freedom, and prioritizes the most vulnerable.
In the wake of a violent insurrection, this message and mission is all the more vital. Democracy is fragile and we must continue to protect it.
We will do this by working together. It's the job of every citizen to continue to take action to build a better world. At NCJW we take that to heart, and we hold on to two truths at the same time: A better, more inclusive, more equitable nation is possible – and we still have a lot of work to do to achieve it. Please join us.
Sheila Katz is the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women.
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.