From Wikimedia Commons.
"May their memory be [for] a blessing" — I know I had heard this phrase before, but didn't know anything about it until after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away Friday and I saw some people posting online about how it is a traditional Jewish statement of mourning, roughly equivalent to "rest in peace."
A Jewish friend shared an article that explained the meaning of the phrase in this way:
By saying “may his/her memory be for a blessing", we are not simply saying that we should look back fondly at our memories of that person or that our time with them was a blessing. Rather, we are looking towards the future and expressing our desire that that person's memory and the actions that they performed while they were still alive will inspire us, those they loved, those who loved them, the community, and others to carry on their legacy of committing good deeds; that there will be future good deeds and future merit accrued on the basis of the foundation of good deeds in that person's life. In short, it is wishing for the creation of future blessings as a logical consequence of the way that the person conducted their life; it is not merely a reference to our appreciation of their memory.
I really like this emphasis on how the memory of a dearly loved one will continue to reverberate in this world. I think this saying is a good example of something that is important for all religions: a focus on the importance of doing good in the here and now rather than functioning as an opiate of the masses promising "pie in the sky when you die."
The more I think about religion, the more I believe that this life is a crucible not just for us, but also for our beliefs (and the actions that spring from those beliefs). If a belief harms people in this life and we justify it with a promise that that pain will be canceled out in the hereafter (or with a claim about how people (allegedly) conducted themselves in a prior existence), it's time to take a really hard look at that belief and change it. In Christian terms, if Jesus's key to discernment that "by their fruits ye shall know them" is going to have much power, it has to be based on the fruits that we can actually see in the here and now. If we can make someone's life today miserable with the reassurance that God will make them happy after they die, we're in very dangerous territory.
It's of course a bit more complicated than this brief outline. We do need to learn how to make sacrifices in the short term to obtain longer-term joy. Having an eternal perspective on trials can have huge—and real—benefits (as dad's talk from last week eloquently explained.) God can make things right that go unaddressed in this life. But at the end of the day, if the effect of our beliefs or actions is to harm people (especially those who don't share our beliefs) in this life and deny them rights, that's a major red flag.
To come back to RBG, saying "may her memory be a blessing" with this meaning is particularly appropriate. She did more to improve the lives of American women than any other lawyer (and maybe anyone at all?) in the last century, and she was a staunch ally in the fight for to improve the lives of LGBTQ people, racial minorities, the poor, disabled people, and many other marginalized groups. She was not perfect by any means, and there are definitely legitimate criticisms of some of her work and her blind spots, but I know that her memory will be a blessing—to her family and friends, of course, but also to the many people who will carry on the work she dedicated her life to.