For many of us, our Jewish New Year of 5781 began with the news of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing. Putting politics aside, she dedicated her life to public service and advocacy, and she was a titan in advancing gender rights.
Beginning Rosh Hashanah with such upsetting news is emotionally jarring. Any time that we in are in a heightened emotional state — for a good or for a distressing reason — we as human beings struggle when another highly-charged event occurs. Imagine seeing a bat mitzvah girl faint as she steps up to the bimah to lead services or seeing a Torah fall out of the Ark on the High Holidays. Imagine being at a wedding when a guest has a heart attack or at a funeral hearing the cheers of the baseball game from the field across the street. Just as our bodies cannot be in two physical places at once, so too is it unnerving for our emotions to be pulled in multiple directions.
This, I believe, is why Twitter, Facebook, High Holidays teachings, and text messages have shared the common thought ascribed to Judaism: Dying on or right before Rosh Hashanah means that the deceased is a righteous person.
But here’s the truth: There is no Jewish source of which I am aware that says that. None. We are taught that dying on the date of your birth, as we are told that Moses did, is a sign of righteousness and that dying on the eve Shabbat is a good omen. In the case of Moses, we are looking to elevate the one who died on their birthday by comparing them to the person most closely connected with God in all of Jewish history. For those passing right before Shabbat, we are retroactively calling it a good omen. In both cases, we are simply following a basic human need: meaning-making.
This is certainly not a bad thing! We as human beings are hard-wired to make meaning of seemingly disconnected or random events. Processing everything that we experience in a day as isolated events is too taxing even for the complex neurology of our brains. And so we seek connections, finding comfort in how two disparate events relate to each other.
I believe that is the emotional impetus for the idea that one who passes on or just before Rosh Hashanah is a righteous person. It creates meaning and imparts comfort rather than serves as a reward for their righteousness. Around the High Holidays — when we are in a unique state of introspection and reflection — it is not only understandable but perhaps even necessary to make sense of the passing of Justice Ginsburg — who could rightfully be called righteous! — as we ourselves are praying for our own health and happiness.
Perhaps Judaism already has the formula to help us navigate two simultaneous and emotionally-charged events. After learning of someone’s passing, we say, “T’hi nishmatam tzrurah bitzror ha-hayyim. May their soul be bound up in the bond of life.” As we continue to celebrate our New Year of 5781 and prepare ourselves for the Day of Atonement, may the righteousness of Justice Ginsburg — and of all those who passed in 5780 — inspire us to reach our capacity as individuals and, in turn, as a community.