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Kol Nidre Sermon

09/27/2020 08:00:43 PM


Rabbi Samuel Gordon

Rabbi Gordon speaks at Ruth Bader Ginsburg vigil, Federal Plaza, Chicago, 9/19/20

Ten days ago, we were profoundly saddened by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. It was not a surprise or a shock, yet many of us were deeply shaken by the news. In this challenging time, when so many are already feeling fragile and vulnerable, this loss has hit us hard. There are no words truly adequate to capture her influence and importance. She will be remembered as one of the greatest figures in American history. She was undoubtedly the most influential Jewish individual in American history. She first helped shape this nation’s attitude towards women’s rights, and then expanded her work in the battles for civil rights for all. She was brilliant and articulate. She had a wonderful sense of humor and, with her decency, won the loyalty and respect even of those who argued against her. A woman of valor, a noble daughter of her people. She will never be forgotten.

The Book of Ecclesiasticus teaches:

Let us now praise those of renown, through whom the Eternal One has done wonders.

They were leaders of the people, who gave counsel with understanding and insight.

Wise and eloquent in their teachings, they were just and loving in their deeds.

All these were honored in their generations, they were the glory of their times.

There are some who have left a name behind them, whose remembrance is as honey in the mouth.

People will declare their wisdom; all will tell of their goodness. The glory of their lives will never be lost, and their work will never be blotted out.

These Ten Days of Awe began with the news of Justice Ginsberg’s death, and this time has been filled with tributes to and remembrances of her. We must not allow the political battles and controversies focused on the future direction of the Supreme Court to obscure the memory of this extraordinary woman of valor and her remarkable life. No matter what the political outcome and consequences of this confirmation fight, Ruth Bader Ginsberg must be honored as one of America’s greatest historic heroes.

On this day of Yom Kippur, a day of remembrance, we mark her death. But in this uniquely challenging year, it is not only Justice Ginsberg for whom we mourn. Due to the COVID-19-19 pandemic, the entire world is confronting death and loss. We are taught to accept individual death as the natural order of human experience. This is the pattern of our lives. To everything, there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven—A time to be born and a time to die. Such is the way of the world.

But every so often in human history, the orderly patterns of life and death seem uprooted and overturned. We are living through such a time. We find ourselves in the midst of a deadly pandemic. In these last six months, more than 200,000 people in the United States have died. More than 1,000,000 people have perished worldwide.

This is a moment that should be shocking to us as a society and world. But I worry about our communal mental health and well-being. Elizabeth Kubler Ross famously defined the stages of mourning and grief. And if we were to apply her system to this current experience, I think we would have to admit that we are in the Denial phase. I fear that we will be paying a collective psychological price with our own PTSD—post-traumatic Stress Disorder, except it is not POST—We are very much in the midst of the traumatic stress

I do truly believe that we will come through this current crisis. The pandemic nature of COVID-19 will end. There will be a vaccine or a number of them. There will be medications to limit its deadly effects. We will move on from our isolation and recover from the economic devastation. It may not be as quickly as we hope, but eventually

But I still have one question: will we remember this moment and how will we do so? Will we have learned anything? Will we be different as individuals and as a society?

Many commentators have noted that there are few remembrances of the 1918 influenza pandemic. There are no memorials or public tributes. The 100th anniversary of its outbreak was barely mentioned. There were no public rituals or memorials. And yet, 500 million people were infected worldwide. 50 million people died throughout the world. There were 675,000 deaths in the United States, but you would have a difficult time finding a space that is dedicated to the memory of that event. That pandemic largely faded from communal memory until our current pandemic made the 1918 experience more relevant and topical.

Someday, hopefully soon, this COVID-19 pandemic will be history. But what will be the nature of our memory when it’s all over? How will we eventually absorb and come to grips with its power to affect our lives and attitudes? I don’t think statues or memorial columns are the relevant concern, but I do think we cannot put it all behind us as America did following 1918. We must not allow this event to fade from our memory. Even more importantly, we cannot return to “normal,” however we might understand that.

This COVID-19 pandemic should change us. We need a national dedication in response to its effects. We need to honor scientists, physicians, nurses, caregivers, and first responders. We need to recognize the workers who have kept America functioning during the time. And we need to confront the societal inequities and weaknesses that have been exposed by COVID-19.

Science must not be politicized or seen as a secret plot by elitists or nefarious cabals. We are witnessing an enormous divide in access to health care. America’s economic disparities have resulted in disproportionate illnesses and deaths in the African American, LatinX, and immigrant communities. Our system of elder care needs to be changed. America’s health insurance is largely employer-based, and in a serious recession such as we are in, people lose not only their employment and income but also their health care insurance. We can’t feel secure behind walls and borders. A universal pandemic does not limit itself to one nation or even continent. Our world is interdependent. This pandemic may have forced us to isolate ourselves through social distancing. But isolation is disastrous for nations.

If we are to create memorials to this moment in time, they must be built out of our resolve to reform this nation. We must respect scientific knowledge and medical expertise. We must reject wild paranoid conspiracy theories. We must create a health care system that protects the well-being of all. We must commit ourselves to a society where a health crisis cannot be borne disproportionately by one segment of the population, especially not based on race or economic status.

And we must recognize that we really are dependent on each other. Your face mask protects me. Mine protects you. And that’s a metaphor for far more of life than any coronavirus. We really are dependent on each other. We are responsible for one another. We don’t want to live the rest of our lives in isolation, cut off from human contact. We thrive within community. Let our memorial to those who have perished be a commitment to build a more caring and loving world.

And so too, let the truest memorial to Ruth Bader Ginsberg be made not of marble or bronze, though she deserves that as well. But we will honor her best when we commit to the fight for equality, human rights, and justice. We must see ourselves as her sons and daughters, as inheritors of her moral legacy. Through our actions and causes, she will continue to live on among us. Then her memory will remain an inspiring blessing.


Click HERE for a PDF version of the sermon.

Wed, November 29 2023 16 Kislev 5784