Sunday, September 1, 2019

Shoftim (People Have the Power)

Toward the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Moses exhorts: Justice, justice you shall pursue!

By this point in the Torah, halfway through the fifth and final book of Deuteronomy, our tradition’s steadfast emphasis on justice—tzedek/tzedakah—is well-established.  So why is the word repeated twice in just this one verse?  I’d like to offer two explanations from our tradition which very much speak to our contemporary situation.

Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman—better known as the Ramban—suggests that the first appearance of the word addresses judges, for whom the portion, Shoftim, is named.  The repetition comes to remind us that justice is not merely the domain of legal professionals; it is the responsibility of each ordinary citizen to “pursue every avenue to ensure that public affairs are run on a basis of righteousness.”  We cannot sit back and blame our public officials for the injustice that pervades our culture; the obligation to ameliorate it lies with each and every one of us.

The nineteenth-century Hasidic sage Reb Yaakov Yitzchak of P’shischa offers another interpretation.  For him, the first mention of justice speaks to ends, while the second refers to means.  In other words: “The pursuit of justice must also be done justly, unblemished by invalid means, with lies and surreptitiousness as some permit themselves under the flag of a worthy cause.” 

As Martin Luther King famously noted: “In the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means and, ultimately, destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.”

Patti Smith speaks to both of these truths in “People Have the Power” from her 1988 album Dream of Life.  Co-written with her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, the song opens with the poet dreaming of a better world:

I was dreaming in my dreaming 
Of an aspect bright and fair 
And my sleeping it was broken 
But my dream it lingered near 
In the form of shining valleys 
Where the pure air recognized 
And my senses newly opened 
I awakened to the cry 
That the people have the power 

The second and third verses speak to the significance of just means, explicitly rejecting “vengeful aspects” for a better vision, in which shepherds and soldiers (and later, leopards and lambs) like together, fulfilling Isaiah’s prophetic vision:  

Vengeful aspects became suspect 
And bending low as if to hear 
And the armies ceased advancing 
Because the people had their ear 
And the shepherds and the soldiers 
Lay beneath the stars 
Exchanging visions. . .  

Then, in the relentless and triumphant chorus, Smith echoes Ramban’s insistence that the ultimate power to bring justice lies with we, the people:

The people have the power
The people have the power
The people have the power
The people have the power

The power to dream, to rule 
To wrestle the world from fools 
I believe everything we dream 
Can come to pass through our union 
We can turn the world around 
We can turn the earth' s revolution 
We have the power 
People have the power


This week we begin the month of Elul, our season of preparation for the Days of Awe.  In a nation awash in injustice, starting at the top, may we recommit ourselves to just means toward the just end of a kinder, more compassionate, and better society for all. 

We have the power to wrestle the world from fools.

To turn the world around.

In the forthcoming new year, 5780, may we make it so.

For the video of Patti Smith’s People Have the Power see: 

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