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Seeds of Redemption: Rosh Hashanah and Justice Ginsburg

Justice Ginsburg sits before a library

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues' resonate differently right now. We felt them not once or twice or three times, but during so many moments of so many days – which both flew by and never fully started.

We are in particular pain today, because of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, not only as a person, but as a symbol of resistance against our society’s decline. She represented justice at a time of injustice – truth at a time of dishonesty, fidelity at a time of opportunism. She embodied the best of us, and many fear that her death might portend our country’s downfall.

Her loss leaves us feeling hopeless. For me, it evokes a part of the High Holy Day services so dark that we typically omit. It is the commemoration of martyrs, built around the medieval lyrical poem Eleh Ezkarah, “these people, I remember.”

Embedded within the liturgy is the central figure of Rabbi Akiva – someone akin to the Justice Ginsburg of rabbinic thought who was known for his great legal mind and mythical proportions as an exemplar of justice.

After a fateful rebellion against the Roman Empire, Akiva and nine other sages were tortured publicly to dissuade further uprisings. He was killed in the morning, at the time when he would ordinarily recite the Sh’ma.

Amid this torture, Rabbi Akiva summoned the strength to begin reciting the Sh’ma. Just as he was beginning to elocute, his students interrupted him:

“How can you say words of affirmation for God, even while being tortured to death?”

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He replied with verses from the V’ahavtahV’ahavtah, et Adonai Elohecha. Bechol l’vavcha, u’v’chol nafshecha, u’vchol me’odecha – “You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” Until that moment, he did not understand how he could possibly love God with all of his soul. Finally, he understood: afilu notel et nafshecha – he could love God until his soul departed.

Rabbi Akiva’s last words were the Sh’ma itself, finishing with a long, drawn out echad, affirming God’s oneness, and his oneness with God.

Akiva remained brave in his fulfillment of mitzvot until his last breath. His students came away wounded – in emotional pain so great that we still read of it today. He was tortured. They became tortured souls.

After the loss of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last night, it feels like we are all students of Rabbi Akiva. Ginsburg persisted for years, in spite of her diagnosis with metastatic pancreatic cancer. We can only imagine the torture she must have endured in order to remain our country’s moral compass for as long as she could. In bearing witness to her resilience in the face of terminal illness, we experienced a searing pain wrought of empathy. 

Her loss was too much to bear, especially after a year defined by the losses to which we bore witness. Tragic, unnecessary, prolonged losses. Our ten martyrs this year were not rabbis. They were doctors, nurses, and hospital support staff. They were teachers and first responders. They were essential workers. They were immigrants. They were the incarcerated. They were soldiers. They were ordinary New Yorkers and Texans and Floridians. They were justices who refused to step down.

Compounding the agony of experiencing the loss of so many people, we also mourn the loss of our society as we once knew it. We mourn our sense of safety. We mourn our belief that a benign government would be there for us – and that we would all be there for each other.

During my own darkest moments this spring, I took time to study with my beloved colleague, Rabbi Benjamin Spratt, the incoming Senior Rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom. He invited me to reflect with him on a passage of Talmud about the precipitous change that comes during times of destruction – and the reality that loss can bear within it the seeds of redemption.

Of little surprise, it features our great sage Rabbi Akiva.

In Makkot 24b, we read about a group of sages who have ascended the Temple Mount in Jerusalem years after the Romans had laid waste to it. They tore their garments in mourning and burst into tears when they saw a fox dash out of the Holy of Holies, remembering that when the Temple was in use, anyone who wasn’t a priest would die from entering this most sacred of spaces. The holy of holies is now no more than a fox’s lair.

But as their tears fall on the overgrown stone of the Temple mount, they hear the sound of laughter piercing the air and look over to find the great Rabbi Akiva in hysterics.

They demand of him, “Why are you laughing?” Rabbi Akiva responds by juxtaposing two different prophecies of Jerusalem – one of its destruction in Micah 3:12 and the other of its rebuilding in Zecharaiah 8:4.

The former acknowledges that “For your sake, Zion will be plowed as a field and Jerusalem shall become rubble…” The latter affirms: “There will yet be elderly men and elderly women sitting in the streets of Jerusalem.”

Without the former, the latter is dubious. Standing in a destroyed Jerusalem, Rabbi Akiva is strengthened in his faith that Jerusalem will be rebuilt. Perhaps he is laughing at the recognition that both prophecies are true at once in that very moment – that he is an older man sitting in the streets of Jerusalem. Perhaps he is imaging our own reality two millennia later of a Jerusalem restored.

Until the Destruction of the Second Temple, there could not be a rabbinic revival. Until the priestly caste was decimated, we could not become a nation of priests. Until upheaval forced institutional change, an emergent group of leaders could not create a religious revival that would animate our people for two millennia.

We might despair today. Perhaps we should despair. But we should not only despair. Like Rabbi Akiva before us, we must find a way back to laughter and hope – through a vision of what is yet to come.

Our secret as a People comes not in avoiding pain and loss, but in rebuilding from it. After each successive catastrophe, our people has rebuilt with greater wisdom and regard for how we could become better.

The task before us during these Days of Awe is not to excoriate ourselves or account for our sins. If anything, we have done more than enough of that throughout this past year.

It is to acknowledge the depths of our pain and search for the seeds of redemption.

What will you build this year, amid the rubble of our devastated society? What will you create or cultivate within yourself? Which relationship will you tend to? Which skill will you hone? Which personal or professional transition will you embark upon? What book will you write? What office will you run for? What cause will you advocate for?

Rabbi Akiva could laugh on the ruins of the Temple Mount because he saw the vision of what was to come and worked tirelessly to realize it. He could move beyond the pain of societal catastrophe – because he was creating the institutions of a rabbinic era so magnificent that it rendered the central Temple obsolete. Akiva’s laughter was not a sign of disrespect, but a sign of having understood the depth of suffering – and reality that hope could still exist amid it.

Until we have a project that squarely places our hopes on the future, we can never surmount the present. Once we have that purpose, we too can find mirth. When we find a project to which we can devote ourselves with fullness of heart, we can once again experience joy.

Rabbi Akiva’s students finally reply: Nichamtanu; Akiva, nichamtanu – “You have comforted us Akiva, you have comforted us.”

I pray that we all find comfort this year in the way of Rabbi Akiva and with inspiration from Justice Ginsburg. May justice live on in our actions and in the way we lead our lives. May we grieve now – and then stand together with renewed purpose. May we find higher purpose and, in time, perhaps even laughter.

This sermon is dedicated to Rabbi Benjamin Spratt, Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, and Rabbi David Gelfand, all of whom informed and inspired its writing.

 

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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.