"Rosh Ha-Shanah is a time for us to contemplate our highest ideals and our actual behavior. We make amends to ourselves, to one another, and to God for the gap." So writes Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson in Open Horizons.
This Rosh Ha-Shanah has a special meaning for me, becomes it brings with it the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020). For many of us she symbolizes what it is like to live up to high ideals. We are also challenged to ask ourselves two questions: What are my ideals? And how well do I live up to them?
Six High Ideals
For my part, I think of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as holding to at least six high ideals, all woven into the life of a single, remarkable woman.
- The dream of equal citizenship ("the constitutional principle of the equal citizenship stature of men and women.”)
- Fidelity to the bonds of friendship (including friendships across differences, as with Justice Scalia)
- Devotion to family (her husband Marty, her two children, her five grandchildren)
- Intellectual excellence (her case work, her legal career)
- Courage (her bouts with cancer)
- Zest for Life (her love of opera, working out, and her capacity for laughter)
I realize that, when it comes to high ideals, many will focus primarily on the first, on the dream of equal citizenship. In some contexts this focus is entirely appropriate. Equal citizenship is an ongoing project in which we can and should participate, availing it to all: women, men, the poor and powerless, the under-represented. And we must, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, resist the elite and powerful who, trapped in their mansions of hubris, seek only their own well-being.
But what impresses me about Ruth Bader-Ginsburg is that she points me toward all six. They are woven together into a life well-lived, and I would like to live this way, too. I do not ask her or anybody to embody these ideals perfectly; I'm sure she "fell short" often enough. Don't we all. But I do ask myself to do my best and to be honest about my shortcomings.
I know that in days to come so many will picture her as a "fighter." We will be called to pick up the mantle, and advance the dream, of equal citizenship. And rightly so! But on this Rosh Ha-Shanah, what so inspires me about Ruth Bader Ginsburg is not just that she fought for justice. It is that by so many accounts she was, or sought to be, a fully human being, a whole person, who could laugh, love her husband and children and grandchildren, love the opera, work out, enjoy friendships (even across ideological divisions, as with Justice Scalia) and face suffering with great courage. This, I believe, is what the Life in whose life the universe unfolds calls all of us to become. I see her responding to One who once said to her people, and to all of us, choose life (Deuteronomy 30: 15-20). She chose it so richly, so fully, providing an example for us to follow. I want to choose life, too.