Sign In Forgot Password

Yom Kippur Sermon - Power

10/02/2020 11:39:58 AM


After losing half his fortune in the stock market crash in 1929, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan wrote in his diary: “I feel like a polar bear on an ice floe that is drifting into warmer zones as he watches with growling impotence the steady dwindling of his home.”  His words might reflect how many of us feel today.  While we might be able to control how we approach the melting of our home, we do not feel we can stop what seems inevitable.  That inability to affect and impact those things that are beyond our sphere of influence during this year of pandemic and so many challenging events has left many of us feeling powerless to impact and affect the world beyond the self. We feel we cannot fully control the maelstrom of events that surround us. Yet, we wish to feel that we have power – a sense of control and mastery --- once more in a world that seems to keep taking it away from us. 

The word power carries “purgative” overtones.  The idea of power sometimes makes us feel uncomfortable. At least, it does that to me. It gives me an uneasy feeling. I surely do not feel comfortable having power over another human.  After all, as Lord John Falberg-Acton famously said, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.  I do want power, but I do not want to become corrupted.  Therefore, I have tried to guard myself against power, to feel cautious even when I exert it.

But then something changed.  I gained a different perspective on what power could be.  I was taught that power, in Hebrew Koach, merely signifies the ability to act. This understanding of power as signifying the ability to act allows me to understand the morning blessing “ha noten la’yaef koach,” “Who gives power to the weary,” in a different light.  Instead of God waking me up, God has gifted me power.  The power to rouse myself, act.

Power does not need to be defined only as exercising power over someone else.  The notion can expand to include the idea that being powerful, recognizing that I have the ability to act, may yet still be contingent on someone else joining me.  Power, properly understood and contextualized, can be -- and is -- a good thing.

Power over someone usually manifests itself in certain ways.  Power over someone can be a zero- sum game, used to control. Such power focuses on domination, restricting others, and leads to competition.  This is the type of power Lord Acton was describing when he said power corrupts absolutely.  Power with someone, however, is expansive, cooperative, and focuses on consent.  And most of all power with others is collaborative.  Alexis de Tocqueville said in regard to power that comes by working with others: “Knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends all the others.” 

There is a midrash that I feel perfectly illustrates the difference between power over verses power with:

Filled with pride after the creation, water is flaunting its power and swirls around even up to heaven. God rebukes the waters, but it boasts that it is the best creation of all, for it can cover all the land with floods. God sends an angel with grains of sand to the waters, but the waters laugh at the little grains. The angel tells the frightened grains that by sticking together they will be able to be strong. Aided by the winds, the grains begin to form beaches and then build up into mountains, and the waters draw back with respect.

It is only when we come together that we build power.  According to William Powell, Power, “Must be taken, it is never given”.  It is only together that the grains of sand can take power from the water. The word koach in Hebrew is the power that comes with joining together with someone else to act. The person who cuts themselves off from others and thinks they are better off alone diminishes their power.  It is only by joining together that we realize true power.

 Power is ultimately about impact.  As individuals we possess Omatz lev, bravery, Oz ruach, strength of spirit, and Kavod, honor.  These are vital attributes for our having a strong, resilient spirit.  However, these attributes have little ability to impact the outside world. Koach, power that is gained by working together, is the only attribute that has the ability to impact the world around us. Our tradition implores us to find power by joining with others.  Moses would have looked pretty silly standing at the sea by himself.  It is only with the people of Israel that he is able, with God’s help, to make the seas part.  Individuals do not make history, people do.

Imagine as an individual that you possessed all the attributes we have talked about this high holy day season.  That as an individual you possessed Ometz lev, bravery, Oz Ruach, strength of spirit, and Kavod, honor.  Now imagine that you could team up with others who also possessed those attributes.  That is not only power, it is powerful.  Power with others takes us from feeling weak against those things outside our locus of control and gives us strength to act. Power with is impactful. Power is the response to vulnerability.

The universe, in Jewish tradition, is predicated on a “power with” model.  In the beginning God left Godself vulnerable by seeking power with humans, not over them.  At the heart of Jewish tradition lies the notion of Covenant (brit).  God and human beings are partners (shutafin) in the work of creation and life. God, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, is in search of men and women to fulfill the tasks of this world and strive for the amelioration, the betterment of life. While our Tradition teaches, and Yom Kippur underscores our inability to control and master all things, our Tradition also affirms that we have the capacity to direct much of our own destiny and that we can influence, if not absolutely control, the events of our lives with the help of others. This is why we recite the lines in the Untaneh tokef prayer, "u'teshuvah, u'tefilah, u'tzedakah ma'a'virin et ro'a ha-g'zeirah -- repentance, prayer, and our performance of acts charity and deeds of justice influence and affect the stern decree." What we do matters, and God needs us to perfect and improve the world.  If God needs us for God to have power, how much more so do we need each other for humanity to express power.

Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about “power with” in a speech, appropriately titled for us today, “Where do we go from here”:

The plantation and the ghetto were created by those who had power, both to confine those who had no power and to perpetuate their powerlessness. Now the problem of transforming the ghetto, therefore, is a problem of power, a confrontation between the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to the preserving of the status quo. Now, power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change. Walter Reuther defined power one day. He said, "Power is the ability of a labor union like UAW to make the most powerful corporation in the world, General Motors, say, 'Yes' when it wants to say 'No.' That's power."

Now….all of us have our moral convictions and concerns, and so often we have problems with power. But there is nothing wrong with power if power is used correctly. Indeed, without power, we are impotent, unable to control in any way our destiny or fate.

One of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a surrender of power, and power with a denial of love…

Now, we got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best …is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.

So where do we go from here?  We become what we were always meant to be, a kehillah Kedosha, a sacred community of strong individuals.  A community that works together to build power with others, not to have power over.  We work as the prophet Isaiah implored us to in today’s haftarah:

to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke … to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-- when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood.

Then our light will break forth like the dawn, and our healing will quickly appear; then our righteousness will go before us, and the glory of the LORD will be our rear guard.”

As individuals, we have strength that we perhaps have not realized.  As a community, we can change the world.  Old models of power over are slowly being replaced by models of power that comes from cooperation, shared self-interest and working together.  Power over others is tenuous at best.  It relies on the assumption that people will not, or cannot, organize themselves, set aside petty differences and work together for a better world.

An individual grain of sand stands no chance against the onslaught of the sea.  But when the grains of sand work together to form a beach, the power of the sea, the power of the one, stands no chance against the power of the many.  Let us always remember that we are strong as individuals, but we are powerful as a community.  We are a kehillah kedosha.  May this year of 5781 be a year of power and impact where we display our power together.  Gamar Chatimah Tovah!

Thu, October 29 2020 11 Cheshvan 5781