I would like to say something about the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg that would be helpful, or uplifting, or consoling. That’s not going to happen.
I would like people to be able to take some time to appreciate and commemorate and memorialize her actual life, without regard to the political mess that is about to engulf us. I don’t think that’s really possible now, at least not for me. And I have no interest in writing about the political mess, either. And I’m also really, really aware that many of us were—maybe without even realizing it—relying on one elderly jurist to be a bulwark against the end of the American aspiration to liberty, equality and justice.
There is a Jewish fable, or legend, or lesson, or whatever, about the lamed-vavniks, the 36 truly righteous people scattered through the world, for whose sake the Divine does not destroy the earth again. I’m fond of this idea, or at least of some of the versions and aspects of it. What I like about this whole story, more than anything, is not the lamed-vavniks themselves, but what it means to act as if we non-lamed-vavniks. To act as if there were a handful of people whose identity was undiscoverable and unknowable, and whose righteous acts were the bulwark against the eschaton.
Of course, nobody really knows who is or is not a lamed-vavnik. I have known a person or two who caused me to think that they might be, but the odds were always against it. Nor is it likely, all things considered, that a lamed-vavnik would be famous in the world, would have above-the-fold obituaries. Indeed, it is even possible that you are a lamed-vavnik yourself, and that your own good deeds are the ones that justify the continued existence of the world.
And—if somehow there are always precisely thirty-six of them, that implies that when one lamed-vavnik dies, another is born, somewhere. It’s not reincarnation, mind you—it’s not the same soul or anything like that, it’s just a happy coincidence that one of the people born somewhere in the world at that moment is a sort of potential messiah, that at the moment of total vulnerability and bereavement, someone somewhere is being born with the capacity to justify the entire existence of the whole world, or at least one thirty-sixth of it.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,