Pr21A A Tzadik and the people

Exodus 17:1-7, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

The ongoing story in the first reading for the last few weeks involves two main characters in addition to God: Moses and the people.

Moses is often called the first Tzadik. “Tzadik”  (Hebrew: צַדִּיק‎ [tsaˈdik]), is a title in Judaism given to an especially righteous person. Perhaps a famous leader or teacher (like Moses) or an ordinary, not-so-famous person (like your next door neighbor or you.)

We might well guess that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a Tzadik.

Like Moses, she began life as an ordinary person, and she never forgot the gritty realities faced by women and minorities with the foot of gender and racial discrimination pressing on their necks.

Like Moses, she led. She pioneered. In a wilderness. “When Ginsburg started her work in the 1960s, the Supreme Court had never invalidated any type of sex-based rule… and it had rejected every challenge to laws that treated women worse than men.”[1] Her life’s work “changed the way the world is for American women.”[2]

Like Moses, she moved in high places and elite circles, advocating for those who were not there. Whether writing a brief or a majority opinion or a dissent, she wrote to explain reality, to teach justice and to persuade that change was necessary.

Her sense of right and wrong and justice was deep and it came from her identity as a Jew. “She saw being a Jew as having a place in society in which you are always reminded you are an outsider, even when she, as a Supreme Court Justice, was the ultimate insider. The memory of it… informed what she thought society should be doing to protect other minorities. [She said] ‘It makes you more empathetic to other people who are not insiders, who are outsiders.’”[3]

Following the death of a Tzadik – a Righteous One – like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we do well to remember and give thanks for her. But we should also remember all the people, known and unknown, who contributed to her ability to persevere and succeed, like the Pioneers, Trailblazers and Supporting Staff who worked with her at the ACLU. Which brings us to the second main character in the wilderness story: “the people.”

In lots of sermons, “the people” get a bad rap because they complain and question God or Moses. The bad rap is undeserved, because for the most part, the people carry on. They don’t turn their backs on the cause or run back to Egypt. They keep moving forward and help their neighbors keep moving forward, so that every day everyone gets a little bit closer to the Promised Land.

Like Gerald Gunther, one of Ginsburg’s law professors at Columbia Law School in 1959. Even though Ginsburg had graduated at the top of her class, no judge would hire her for a clerkship. Gunther intervened. He had always sent his best students to one particular judge. Gunther told that judge that unless he hired Ginsburg, Gunther would never again send him a clerk. “The Ginsburg clerkship apparently was a success; (that judge) kept her not for the usual one year, but for two.[4]

In Jewish mystical tradition, there isn’t only one Tzadik or Righteous One who matters. In fact, in order for the world to continue, there must be at least 36 Righteous or tzadikkim in the world – among “the people” – at any given time. There may be more. Given the wilderness we are wandering in these days, I hope there are many more. They may be people we know. They could probably use our help.

Gunter was one person, helping one unemployed, married, female law graduate to get a job. Thanks in part to his righteous deed, Ginsburg was able to continue growing into her greatness and change the world for us all.

Like the family and friends of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, like her colleagues and co-workers, like Gerald Gunther, may we all do our best to keep moving and help one another keep moving on our way to the Promised Land.

[1] The Conversation, Jonathan Entin October 2, 2018, 6:05 a.m. EDT, Updated September 18, 2020 8:16 p.m. EDT.

[2], Nina Totenberg, September 18, 2020, 7:28 p.m. ET.

[3] The Washington Post, Yonat Shimron, Religion News Service, September 18, 2020 at 9:35 p.m. EDT.

[4], Nina Totenberg, above.

Pr20A The real thing

Exodus 16:2-15
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

You’ve probably heard the pony joke. An optimistic child looks at a big pile of poop and undismayed, starts digging because “there must be a pony in here somewhere!”

In the third reading – Matthew — some laborers asked for a day’s work. They got the work and the promise of a fair wage and were happy with that until the end of the day. In the evening, when they saw other laborers being paid the same wage for less work, they were unhappy.  As the laborers’ spokesperson complains: “You made them equal to us!”

This parable contains multiple editorial layers. The story Jesus might have told is the first layer and probably ended at verse 15 when the landowner asks: “Are you envious because I am generous?” A second and third layer adds “the last will be first” in order to make points about the inclusion of gentiles and the prominence of the original twelve disciples.[1]  The earliest version of the parable focuses on how offended the first-hired laborers feel to be considered equal to the last-hired.  

As Americans, we believe in equality.  

And yet, as I get ready to begin working through Me and White Supremacy again, I realize that saying I believe in equality does not mean much.  It’s a great idea, but I am protected from equality by my white privilege. The first-hired worker in me complains every time my white privilege is challenged. 

I can remember listening to complaints about affirmative action and thinking “they’ve got a point” because advancement should be about merit and what one has earned.  I was oblivious to the operation of white privilege: e.g., legacy admissions and the old boy/old girl network. I conveniently forgot that my career-launching job was not earned. It was given to me as a favor to a family member.  Even today, I continue to be surprised by how uncomfortable I am whenever I get a glimpse of what real equality would look like.

In the first reading — Exodus — the Israelites find themselves in the wilderness: free, but hungry. They complain, hoping for the meat and bread they ate in Egypt. God sends something, but it did not resemble the meat and bread they remembered.  Moses said it was real thing so they ate. It satisfied their hunger, and as the story goes, the people ate that strange, new, very real stuff every day for the next forty years until they finally reached the Promised Land.

In the pony joke, if the girl finds the pony she will learn that the idea of a pony is a lot different from the real thing. A real pony is a lot of work.  

Real equality is going to be a lot of work. To find and then to keep.  It may turn out to look and feel much different from our idea of it, the idea in which we say we believe.  But only the real thing is worth looking for.

[1] Reginald H. Fuller, Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today (The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota 1984) at 170. This is a wonderful commentary. Scholarly, in plain language and no fluff. There are three editions: 1974, 1984 and 2006. The 2006 was co-authored and the added voice is nowhere near as substantive as Fuller’s. You can often find copies of the 1974 and 1984 books on ebay. Buy one if you find one. You’ll be glad you did.

Photo by Melanie Dretvic on Unsplash