Like many, I fill the hole that grief leaves with food. The night I found out that our beloved RBG died, I found myself bereft – and also craving matzo ball soup. It felt both horribly inappropriate and at the same time absolutely reasonable. After all, it was the first night of Rosh Hashanah and my husband and I had made a big pot of this soup, along with the fixings for a traditional dinner: roast chicken and potatoes, two types of challah, apples, honey – for two people. But after cooking and tasting this food all day, we were not hungry for it. My husband, having heard the news of Justice Ginsburg’s passing, was less inclined to eat. Despite my knowledge of the cravings grief brings, it felt frivolous that extreme hunger was my response to extreme heartbreak and it took all of my will not to have that soup. Who, I asked myself, has kneidlach (dumplings) when an icon dies.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was, like me, a secular Jew. But the timing of her death struck me as being oddly significant on a religious level. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year and also the time, according to lore, when God writes the name of the righteous in the Book of Life – for those who will live – and leaves the wicked ones out. It is said that one who dies on Rosh Hashanah is a tzadik, a righteous person.
And RBG was certainly righteous. Her place in the book should have been assured. Her life was dedicated to what is known in our tradition as tikkun olam, the healing of the world. According to the Kabbalah, the world was made of shards of God’s light but the vessel that held it broke. And now it is our job literally to pick up the pieces. In the modern world, tikkun olam has also taken on the mantle of social justice, making the world a better place. Who better exemplified this than RBG?
Of course, despite our wishes, we could hardly expect her to live forever. And even if we believe in the story of Rosh Hashanah, we have to admit that many wicked people live (some in the White House) while other good ones die.
More crucially than this for most of us, the timing of her death was terrible politically, less than two months before the election with a court that would tip six to three conservative should evil prevail. I found myself saying, as if I knew her, Two months, Ruthie? You couldn’t have held out two more months?
Anyone who has shoveled food into the pit of grief knows that it cannot be filled, which is why I did not have that soup. Because the longing for a woman who led and inspired so many of us could not, would not, be filled. And, in fact, the vacancy that RBG’s death has left, in our lives, will never be filled and in the court, should not be filled now. The disrespect, the hypocrisy, would be too great. RBG herself expressed the wish that her seat on the court not be occupied until after the election. For a woman who gave so much, that is so little to ask.
Jews do not give flowers after a death. What many do instead is to make donations to worthy causes. I would like to suggest that this is one way we might honor her memory, to make sure that those who uphold her values are elected. If we cannot afford even a small donation to candidates or causes, we can volunteer our time. After all, Justice Ginsburg began her career by volunteering with the ACLU because although she tied for top of her graduating class, she could not get hired. Of course, in typical RBG fashion, she became founding director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project in 1972. She later said that it was the work she had not been paid for that she was most proud of in her life.
Sending texts, postcards, making phone calls to get out the vote would be good ways to carry her mantle. RBG did not rant about the world and its injustices, she changed them. In fact, she did not rant at all because her mother had taught her that the worst way to win an argument was with anger. RBG was a dynamo who put herself and her husband through law school – and made Law Review, the highest honor for law students – as she raised a small child on two hours of sleep a night. We can hardly expect to be her – there is no replacement. So get angry, be sad – hell, eat soup – if you will, but also, in the spirit of the Notorious, the Victorious RBG, get busy.