Just over a week ago, national attention was drawn to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., and more specifically to the life and work of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Even her ideological opponents recognized her brilliance and her gifts.
Her death reminded us of the universal symbol of justice, the statue of a blindfolded woman holding a balance scale in her hand. Our national conversation for the past week has largely focused on how the scale will shift from what may never have actually been a balanced center.
Tonight, Jewish people all over the world will begin our observance of Yom Kippur, our holiest day, our Day of Atonement. We also imagine those scales, and our lives in the balance, and the knowledge that each of our individual acts is added to the side of the scale for either merit or sin.
About a year ago, I wanted to demonstrate to a group of school children how delicate the balance can be. A congregant was kind enough to lend me a well-calibrated old-school science lab balance scale. I took the tiniest piece of paper, crumpled it up, and placed it on one side. I myself never imagined that this little bit of nothing would make the scale move. Sure enough, though, the scale leaned to one side.
For at least six months, many of us have felt that our world has been out of balance. COVID-19 strikes and one brick is placed on the scale. Racism rears its ugliness; another brick is added. There’s unrest and violence in our streets. Throw in forest fires and hurricanes. Add the anticipation of an upcoming election that, regardless of the winner, is likely to contribute even more to the imbalance.
Several years ago, I was diagnosed with an ailment called labyrinthitis. It is an inner-ear condition that left my world spinning, and terribly out of balance. It passed, but the worst of it was nearly unbearable. I’m feeling like that is the state of our world today. How much the more so for people who will be directly affected by shifts in the makeup of the court — recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program; people relying on the Affordable Care Act for their health care; the LGBTQ community; women whose physical or emotional health may depend on access to legal and safe abortion; those who already feel that their access to voting has been limited; and, very personally, those of us who identify with religious minorities.
Here’s something of which I am absolutely convinced: While I might relish an imbalance that appears to be in my favor, ultimately, we will all be threatened by imbalance.
We all, then, have the right, the opportunity and the obligation to help to restore the balance. The Torah tells us that we must pursue justice, not wait for it, and not convince ourselves that injustice is OK as long as it’s in our favor. I can’t always cock my head to the side to give myself the illusion that the scale is balanced.
In Psalm 89, you’ll see a phrase most typically translated as “God’s love is steadfast.” The King James translation correctly uses a passive form: “Mercy shall be built up forever.” My colleague, Rabbi Menachem Creditor, in his song “Olam Chesed Yibaneh,” reads the Hebrew differently. He sees these words as a challenge and a mandate. We must build a world with love. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel taught us that the world is a three-legged stool, enduring because of three things: justice, truth and peace. If any of the legs are missing, the world collapses.
It is time for us to move beyond partisan self-interest in this country. We must restore the balance. We must ask about the greater good. We must examine each act we perform, knowing how what appears to be exceptionally light can tip the scales. We, created in God’s image, must recognize the power we each possess to help repair the world. We need to strengthen the legs of the stool that appear to be in danger of collapsing. We must build the world with love.
Our Jewish greeting for this holiday is G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May we all be sealed for a year of blessing in the Book of Life.
Jack Paskoff is rabbi at Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster. He also is a correspondent for LNP. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.