Shofetim - 5778

Dear Congregant,  

The Wall Street Journal prides itself on being one of this nation’s “papers of record,” a news source so authoritative that the stories it reports gain credibility by association with its name.  But whatever weight the WSJ’s reporting has in other areas, its articles on popular culture rarely get cited – or perhaps even read – even by their own subscribers.  It was thus surprising to see the front page of this morning’s WSJ prominently adorned with a striking image of the recently deceased soul music icon Aretha Franklin. 

The caption beneath the shot of Franklin lauded her as “the most commanding and influential vocalist of her generation,” but Franklin’s prodigious vocal talent was in some ways almost incidental to the paper affording her appearance such a prominent billing.  In death – and in life -- Franklin was as lionized for her commanding role in championing social justice issues as she was for her commanding voice.

In the opening verse of this week’s Torah portion (Parashat Shoftim), we are instructed to establish for our communities in every generation a cadre of “shoftim v’shotrim”.  The meaning of this first term is relatively clear.  Shoftim, typically translated as “judges”, (as in the Book of Judges) were actually a class of rulers who both established the rules for society and adjudicated the disputes that arose around these rules. 

Shotrim, however, is a more obscure term.  Generally translated as “officers,” it seems to refer to a class of individuals whose leadership roles paralleled or complemented those of the judges.  But what work remained in a society in which legislative, executive and judicial authority was concentrated in a single individual?

I believe Aretha Franklin and others like her.  Individuals of local, national or international renown, who carry no official title but recognize in their celebrity the potential to advocate on behalf of causes, individuals or principles that they hold dear, reaching an audience that might be inured or indifferent to the same message delivered by a politician.

We join the Wall Street Journal and many other media outlets, public figures and private individuals who celebrate Aretha’s life upon her passing, and hope that others gifted with her celebrity status will similarly seize the opportunity to adjure society to rise to its highest potential.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Rachel Safman