In this week’s Torah portion, the world of the Israelites lost their beloved leader, their icon, Moses. “Put this song in their mouths,” God says, “so that the words may become a witness for Me against them.” God knew that once the Israelites got comfortable in their new land, flowing with milk and honey, that they would lose their way and become complacent, forgetting about their Covenant. Similarly, today, we seem to have lost our way. Our list of errs mirrors that of God’s predictions in Ha’azinu: many people have no regard for the food we eat, how we get it, or what it does to our bodies. We have disregarded our environment, many refuse to wear masks, social distance, or follow protocols to get this pandemic under control. Many folks have disregarded the rights of other humans, and have allowed food insecurity to go on for far too long. It would seem that 2020 continues to bring destruction and pain. I often find myself feeling as though God has given up on us.
This week, our world lost another great leader, an icon, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Erev Rosh Hoshannah. I think it is fascinating that her death also coincides with the reading of this Parsha where Moses prepares for his death, offering his last words from God to his people. Both leaders embodied the middah of Annavah, or humility. Everything Moses did was in humble servitude to HaShem. RBG fought tirelessly for the will of the people, and NOT the rulers, to be the law of the land in the USA. Both were infamous for their quiet, humble demeanor. RBG was soft spoken, saving her speech for times when it counted. Moses had a stutter, and used his words to convey the message of the Covenant between God and the Israelites. One can never be completely prepared for the loss of great leaders. The Israelites time and again demonstrated their inability to function without Moses. RBG’s passing has added more chaos and confusion for our leaders in this crazy year of 2020.
While it would seem right now that God is finished with us, God is very clear in this parsha that this is not the case. We see this to be true in the phrases, “I kill and I restore life. I have inflicted wounds and I will heal. Nothing can be snatched from My hand”. My mother has always comforted me with the latter part of this phrase, “Nothing can be snatched from My hand”. I was living in New York City during September 11, 2011, and I was in constant fear of another terrorist attack. She would always say to me, “nothing can snatch you from God’s hand.”
Both Moses and RBG worked tirelessly right up until their dying days to make sure that they put the song of God’s Will in the mouths of their people. Moses’ song is of God’s faithfulness, and strongly encourages us keep the Covenant. RBG’s song reminds us to keep the Covenant that America made with its people long ago at its inception: the United States is a country for its people, with all genders being equal, and not its leaders. While to many her loss feels like one more piece of tzuris in a long litany of hardships in 2020, we must hear this song that is in our mouths: that God is still here, that God has created us in God’s image, and that we will get through this together and will come out stronger.
In 2005, author, journalist, Abigail Pogrebin and Past President of Central Synagogue in New York City wrote Stars of David, a series of interviews of 62 prominent American Jews who candidly discussed their Judaism. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was among them, sharing openly her sadness about not being able to participate in the minyan because of her gender. Ross and I received the news of RBG’s passing just as one of our Temple Jeremiah musicians, Paul Dykstra and his partner Bob were arriving at our home for dinner. Devastated does not even begin to describe our feelings. A few hours later, our amazing cellist Aaron Kaplan texted me requesting that we make a video of her song. Feeling as though we have to do something to express our profound sadness, we wanted to record in the yard to document this occasion. We hope you find meaning in this video, which also shows Ruth speaking about the impact her mother had on her life. Ross, Abigail, Zev, and I pray that we all may be sealed for the best year ever, and that we will hug again in weeks to come.
I also recently participated in a video project with Kol Zimrah, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and clergy from a dozen congregations across the Chicagoland area. This video, a collective prayer of Hayom T’amtzeinu, was intended to show the strength of the Chicagoland Jewish Community, particularly during this difficult time. Check it out here.