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RBG: Unetaneh Tokef-Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die

Collaborator: Rachel Dubin Gurwitz

As we prepared to light our candles to mark the beginning of the Sabbath and Rosh Hashanah last week, the text messages began pouring in. Had we heard that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had passed away? Did we see the news?


Honestly, when the first message came through, I had not. I was so focused on my family (my daughter was on the road driving in from Austin), and getting our holiday meal together enough so that I could immerse myself in our online holiday service, that I had not been checking news. I knew Justice Ginsburg had been ill, but what timing for her sad passing!


For centuries, an important piece of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy has been the Unetaneh Tokef poem. It is believed that the poem was written in Byzantine times although no one knows for certain its author. The central idea of this poem concerns a figurative book of life. It states that God determines who shall live and who shall die in the coming year and that those slated to live will have their names inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for the coming year. Important in my personal interpretation is the fact that opportunities to temper the severe decree do exist. The sages tell us that God’s judgement can be tempered through three things: t’shuvah (repentance), t’filah (prayer) and tzedakah (charity or righteous giving).  In fact, Rabbi Marina Yergin of Temple Beth-El here in San Antonio had a perfectly wonderful sermon about it on Saturday during the Rosh Hashanah service. (At the time of this writing it has not yet been posted but will be posted here at some point: Rabbi Yergin Sermon 2020.)


There is a Talmudic tradition that a person who dies so close to the beginning of Rosh Hashanah is a “tzaddik”, a person so righteous or precious in God’s sight that they lived the entire year until it’s last moments because they were needed here on earth. This implies of course that they were not written into the Book of Life for this next year, they were slated to pass away, but did not do so until the last precious minute. This is how many feel about the passing of RBG. She was a champion for justice for so many that she lived the full measure of this past year. I quote from Deuteronomy 16:20- “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof - Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.”


May her memory be a blessing to her family, to all those touched by her career, and to our country; and, may she rest in peace.

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