RBG and the Esrog Yizkor Shmini Atzeres

The topic of my talk today is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, aleha hashalom. To be honest, I am nervous talking about her. I remember not too long ago when I could quote Ronald Reagan or John F Kennedy and not have to qualify that referencing them it is not a political statement. It was a time when I could share a story about Menachem Begin or David Ben Gurion and aside from one or two people who would grumble, most would understand that these were people of great consequence; flawed, of course, but influential, leaders who tried hard to make their country and the world a better place. So today, while our country burns figuratively and literally, I ask you to pretend for a moment that we live at a different time, at a time of civility, to not allow politics to muddy my message, and may we merit to return to such a place bimheira v’yameinu.

It’s Shmini Atzeres and technically Sukkos is over but I’d like to use some symbols from Sukkos nonetheless; the Lulav, the Esrog, the Haddasim-myrtle branches, and the Aravot-the willow branches. Possibly one of the most famous Medrashim that explain these species is found in Vayikra Rabbah. It describes how each one of the four species represents a different type of Jew.

First there is the Aravah – the willow branch, it has no taste and no smell. It’s been renamed the Covid-branch… Just kidding. The underlying idea of this Medrash is that taste represents Mitzvos, the commandments given to us by G-d through His Torah, and fragrance represents Middos, good character, something that is independent or complimentary to the Torah. And so, the tasteless and odorless willow branches represent the individual who has no Mitzvos, no good deeds, and has terrible character, no middos whatsoever.

Now I’ll tell you, I have never met such a person in my life. Have you? Nothing at all going for them?! No redeeming qualities?!

But apparently they exist. And you know what we’re told to do with them? On Pesach, we knock this figure in the mouth – hakeh es sheinov, but not on Sukkos. Not after we have cleansed ourselves of our sins, not after we have been humbled into recognizing how small we are, how much evil lurks within. So on Sukkos, we take the Aravah, the mitzvah-less and middos-less Jew, and we tie him and her up with our Lulav, with our Esrog and with our Haddassim. We embrace them. We do not push them away. We do not call them names. We do not ostracize them. We do not, Heaven forbid, pray for their demise. Because you know what happens when the aravot spend so much time in close proximity to the fragrant myrtle branches and the citron-smelling Esrog – it also starts to smell good.

Again, I don’t believe there are any Aravot in our midst – and I don’t just mean here in our shul. I mean in our community, local and beyond. There are things I see that make me cringe, sometimes even cry. But everyone means well as misguided as they may be. We don’t need more fighting, we don’t need more name-calling, we don’t need more sinah, more hatred in our Jewish world. If you think someone is an Aravah, pull ‘em closer. Don’t push them away. Bind them up. Reach out, speak kindly, say hello. That is what we do with the Aravah.

Then there is the Lulav – the Lulav comes from a date tree; tasty – I love dates, but they have no smell. And so, in this Medrashic scheme, the Lulav represents the Jew who performs many Mitzvos but is lacking in his or her middot. It is so sad and tragic that examples abound. That there are garbage fires burning in Brooklyn, started by religious Jews who are upset at the Governors orders. That there are ugly protests led by Orthodox Jews. What a Shanda! And don’t get me wrong – what the governor did in New York was not right; he didn’t work with communal leaders, he singled Jews out time and time again – he’s wrong, but so are we. The complete lack of safety, non-compliance with mask-wearing there and here in our own community. I don’t care about the science. If you legally have to wear a mask – wear one! It’s an absolute chillul Hashem to not do so. Frankly, I don’t care about the constitution and this obsession with individual rights. It is a lack of common decency, of basic middot. You can do all the Miztvos in the world, make a siyum on Shas every year, but a Lulav has no smell. It is inferior and rightfully so. Don’t be a Lulav; don’t hide behind your Torah observance and leave a trail of foul odor everywhere you go.  

Which brings me to Ruth Bader Ginsburg – the Hadass, if I may; the fragrant smelling myrtle branch, a symbol of love and romance in so many cultures. Without a doubt, Justice Ginsberg represented Jewish values. Yes, I know she was laid in state for a number of days and more, we’ll get there. Please hear me out.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an exceptionally devoted spouse; an Eishes Chayil par excellence. Her husband, early in their marriage developed testicular cancer. They were both in law school at the time. But somehow, despite being in her second year of law school, despite having a young child to care for, she managed to shower her husband with devotion and care, going so far as to have notes taken for him by friends that she would later type up, so he too could make his way through school. A devoted mother and spouse.

She was a paragon of civility, known to be the left-leaning justice who was friendly with the Conservatives. Most famously, her relationship with one of the staunchest right-wingers on the bench, Justice Scalia, was legendary. They would go to operas together, they would celebrate New Years, and they even once went on an elephant ride together – just because.  Not only that but Brett Kavanaugh described in great detail how kind and generous Ruth Bader was towards him when he was accepted as a Supreme Court Justice. A model of chessed.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg from the early of days of being rejected from clerkships for her gender to the late years of her stardom as the Notorious RBG was a ferocious advocate of human dignity and equality. In 1999, she wrote the majority opinion in which the Supreme Court ruled that mental illness is a form of a disability. In 2020, she affirmed the rights of Native Americans to lands in Oklahoma. In 2013, she fought for Black citizens to have easier access to voting. And of course, most famously and iconically, time and time again Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought for complete and absolute equal treatment of women in our society.

And yes, I know, our Jewish tradition’s worldview on other nations and women is complex, but allow me to read to you a short passage from another giant, a Torah giant who passed away last month, Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz zt’l:

Egalitarian ideas are not supported by any evidence. The inequality of man is blatantly apparent. (Some are born short, some tall, some smart, some less so, etc.) The only way one can find any support for the idea of equality is in a very difficult religious concept: the concept that people are born in the Image of the Lord and are therefore equal [in some fundamental way]. There is no other argument that I have heard that serves any purpose. All egalitarian movements are an outcome of Judeo-Christian ideas that contain within them the notion of receiving a divine soul that for everyone is more or less the same …

All forces everywhere, within and without, work against equality. People are so inherently different – not only different, but unequal – that it requires a constant struggle to accept the notion of some kind of equality. The only justification for the idea is what you may call a mystical one: even though people don’t appear to be equal, there is something equal in them.

So yes, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fight to bring equality to women and to all others who have been marginalized is most certainly a reflection of a beautiful and fragrant Jewish value of tzedek, of justice. And so I believe I am justified in describing her as the lovely Hadass.

But a Hadass, as you know, has a sweet-smell, but no taste; excellent middot, but a lack of Mitzvot. Not to say that she did not perform countless, hundreds, likely thousands of Mitzvos along the way, but her life was not one dedicated to the Torah, to our understanding of the Torah as a book of life, of not just values, but iron-clad rules and instructions that guide our every movement, Divinely-ordained, and eternally valid. This was not the worldview of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She did not her life in accordance with these Divine rules, she at times, from her powerful perch, ruled in ways that were perhaps inconsistent with the laws of the Torah, and her final stage on this world was a sad reminder of this reality. A fragrant hadass indeed, but I am sorry to say, not what we ultimately strive for.

The final and most significant of the four species is the Esrog. The Esrog is a rare breed. That’s why it costed me $180 this year to buy one… The Esrog that can so easily be disqualified, the Esrog that needs a magnifying glass to see its texture, the Esrog that needs certification to ascertain its origin. To be fragrant and tasty, to have majestic middos and to live one’s life in accordance with the Torah, it’s not easy, it’s almost impossible. But isn’t life about trying?

In a moment we’ll be saying Yizkor, and we will recall parents, loved ones who lived their lives so we can live ours. Many I am sure were hadassim, they lived their lives guided by beautiful Jewish values, of brotherhood and good food, of community and of kindness – I am sure you recall them fondly. Some were perhaps Lulavim, who learned Torah and performed Mitzvos but forgot to impart upon you the beauty of life. And some, I fear, may be remembered as Aravot – as people who made you second-guess your worth, who belittled you, who made you who you are today not because of them, but despite them.

Whomever we recall today, and in whichever fashion, it is not enough to perpetuate, to continue a family tradition. Our goal is to build on their accomplishments, spiritual and otherwise, to forge forward. Life, is about shaking our lulav, shaking our aravot, shaking our hadassim! Not accepting the status quo! It’s about striving to be an Esrog; to do more, to be more. To not continue the legacy of those who came before us but to honor them by continuing further on the path they started. That is the greatest gift we can give our parents; not imitating them but surpassing them.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are done; the High Holiday season is coming to an end. What are we taking with us as we leave? A little bit more Torah study that we can commit to on a daily or even weekly basis? There is so much depth in our tradition that we are painfully ignortant of. A little more prayer, in shul or at home? Maybe some Tehillim, that beautiful evocative poetry, that manages to capture all of human emotion? Our soul is thirsty. You know it is, you’ve felt it these past weeks. Give your soul its deepest desire, to talk to her Creator. Maybe a commitment to check up on one member just once week? On a friend? A family member? A dedication to speaking less cynically, more compassionately, with less judgment? What’s it going to be? Now’s the time to decide. We cannot leave this holiday holding our lulav and esrog limply. Shake it up.

 

Growing up, we had this beautiful custom – my father would take his Esrog after Sukkot and drill little holes in it and in those holes he would place cloves, besamim. And every Saturday night, we would use the Esrog as our besamim for Havdallah and begin our week with a constant reminder to strive, to grow, to not accept the status quo, to be an Esrog.

So today, as we recall loved ones, as we recall Jewish icons, as we recall what came before us, let us not just hold the past in our hands, let’s move it forward. Let’s shake ourselves and let’s shake the world, let’s strive for more, for more fragrance, for more taste, for ceaseless growth, for always wanting more, of filling and yet never satisfying our spiritual thirst. And may we merit, when we are no longer, to be remembered not as an Aravah, heaven forbid, not as a Lulav, not even as a Hadass, but as the Esrog; aromatic and fragrant in our character, delicious and delightful in our deeds.

The Simple Joy of the Torah – a poem

No tug of war over the Torah, aren’t women just the same?

No declining the l’chaims, sobriety can be maintained. 

                       Simchas Torah – the simple joy of the Torah 

No tears shed over Nearim, eggs frozen in a lab, 

Will I ever be a mother, will he ever be a dad?

                       Simchas Torah – the simple joy of the Torah 

No slinking in your seat as the bidding gets too high, 

I can barely pay my bills, but the sixth hakafah I should buy?!

                   Simchas Torah – the simple joy of the Torah 

No social scene that isn’t social for those who don’t fit in, 

We will come, we will daven, we will smile, we will sing, for 

                   Simchas Torah – the simple joy of the Torah 

This year will be quite different from anything before, 

Though we pray for it all to end,  of *this* we can use just a little bit more 

                  Simchas Torah – the simple joy of the Torah

ואיש לא יעלה עמך. הָרִאשׁוֹנוֹת עַ”יְ שֶׁהָיוּ בִתְשׁוּאוֹת וְקוֹלוֹת וּקְהִלּוֹת, שָׁלְטָה בָהֶן עַיִן רָעָה – אֵין לְךָ יָפֶה מִן הַצְּנִיעוּת

And no man should go up with you (in receiving the second set of tablets): the first (tablets) since they were (given) with loud noises and great multitudes were impacted by the evil eye – there is nothing more beautiful than tzniut (modesty-simplicity) 

(Rashi, Shemos, 34:3 quoting Medrash Tanchuma, 3:9:31) 

@YisraelMotzen