Ha-azinu:  Dedicated to Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Inspired by Rabbi Shai Held. Dedicated to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In this second to last portion of Torah this week- Ha-azinu Moses lays down the song that he leaves as a keepsake for the Jewish people to remember their story and their covenant with G-d. In this portion Moses is reminded of his impending death and that he will never set foot in the Promised Land. After Moses is regaled throughout Deuteronomy as the greatest prophet the world will ever know, who spoke to G-d as a friend, face to face, still he is prohibited from realizing the dream that he has worked all these decades to achieve. Torah gives as the reason, that Moses “broke faith with G-d by failing to uphold G-d’s sanctity to the Israelite people.” This is referring to the event when Moses struck the rock in anger at Meribah when attempting to get water for the people. At the beginning of Deuteronomy, Moses protests strongly but G-d will not change the decision. Now, at the end of the book, G-d tells Moses to ascend Mount Nebo where he may see the Promised Land, but not enter it. Moses is told he will die on the mountain and does not utter a word of protest.

The Rabbinic tradition however, was not satisfied with this situation and offers  up a midrash in which Moses pleads with G-d saying, “ Master of the World, after I have worn myself out (serving You) You tell me the time is drawing near for you to die?! I shall not die but live and proclaim the works of the Lord.” But G-d is adamant and says, “ You cannot. Because this is the fate of all human beings.” Here,  the focus of the midrash shifts away from why Moses may not enter the Promised Land, to why Moses must die at all.  The Rabbis bring our attention to the fact that Moses, no matter how great a prophet he was, is human after all and that his life must come to an end like every other human being.

Contemporary Bible scholar Rabbi Shai Held ask the question: But why must Moses die now? Why at this moment in the story? Rabbi Held quotes Bible scholar Patrick Miller who points out that Moses must die now because his work is finished. He writes, “The people have now the word of G-d that Moses taught and that will be their guide in the land that (G-d) has promised. Israel is to now live by the Torah that Moses has taught and in a very real sense does not need Moses.” Moses “moves off the scene and Israel henceforth will not be led by a great authority figure but by the living word of the Torah that Moses taught.”

Rabbi Held proposes that Moses death is both tragic and redemptive. It is often the case that when a person dedicates their lives to a great cause, they often do not live to see the fulfilment of their vision. And this is tragic. But, we also know that the destiny of truly great visions require the time frame and efforts of many generations.

Martin Luther King Jr. understood this when one week before his death he spoke these words, modeled after the story of Moses. He said, “ Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place,  but I’m not concerned with that now. I just want to do G-d’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” Rabbi Held goes on to say that Martin Luther King and Moses both understood that the destiny of their dream was far more significant than their own individual fate.

As I discovered these beautiful words today my mind went to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Why now, G-d? Why must she be taken away at this critical time? And my heart was soothed to consider that perhaps her personal work was complete, though her dream, and our dream of a truly equitable society is far far greater than her own individual destiny. Ruth Bader Ginsburg did more than plant seeds. She changed our world in such profound ways that every daughter, every woman in America has been touched. I would not be standing  before you as your Rabbi without the groundbreaking work of Justice Ginsburg. Her cases, her decisions and her dissents will go on to shape the lives of American citizens for generations to come. I do not think it a stretch to say that like Moses, Justice Ginsburg was a tireless servant of true justice, whose eyes never dimmed, who lived in every present moment and left a profound legacy to support the ongoing project of healing and perfecting our world.   Her memory is truly a blessing.

When Great Trees Fall

by Maya Angelou

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.

Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance, fall away.

We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance of
dark,
cold caves.

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.