Sunday, June 16, 2013

Who is Powerful?

Last week, I raised the first of Ben Zoma’s famous four Talmudic questions: Who is wise? As I noted, I plan to dedicate my High Holy Day sermons next fall to these queries. Your insights and answers will inform my words, making for a more communal experience during the Days of Awe.

So, to begin, here’s the answer to last week’s query, for any who didn’t already know or take the time to google it: Who is wise?  One who learns from all people.

Now, on to this week’s question: “Who is powerful?”
By way of response, a few loosely-connected meditations on power:

  •  Those compelled to flaunt their power usually don’t possess as much as they think.  True authority comes with the security to exercise it judiciously.  To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, it’s more about talking softly than carrying the big stick—and wielding the stick very, very rarely.
  •  Power, as we usually think of it, is fleeting.  Every year, Forbes publishes a list of the “World’s 100 Most Powerful People.”  Not surprisingly, Barack Obama currently holds the top spot.  But come 2017, he will undoubtedly fall off the list entirely—as did Bill Clinton and George Bush before him.  And even today, as the most powerful person in the world, he is frustrated by the lack of 60 votes to stop a filibuster in the Senate.  He can be thwarted by a virtually unknown senator from North Dakota (or, for that matter, Idaho).
  •  Ironically, earthly power usually makes you more—not less—vulnerable.  Mel Brooks to the contrary, it isn’t always good to be the king.  The higher the pedestal, the more people looking to knock you off—and the harder the fall.
  • For most of our history, Jews, like other minorities (and women), have lacked power in the conventional sense.  Until 1948, we had no armies, no sovereignty, and usually no citizenship.  The danger of such powerlessness was brutally illustrated by the Holocaust.
  • Yet sometimes, those without conventional power find ways to prevail, usually by outwitting their opponents.  Theirs is the power of the trickster.  To turn to the classic Jewish archetypes, Esau is much stronger than Jacob—yet Jacob gains the upper hand.   The mighty empires of the ancient world are all gone: Babylon, Egypt, Rome.  Yet we are still here, having outlived them all.  This kind of power can be essential for creating change and justice in the world.  As Audre Lorde wrote of dismantling racism, “The master’s tools never dismantle the master’s house.” 
  • New cultures create new opportunities.  Who would have thought that former high school geeks would now run the world as the new kings (and a few queens) of the high tech world?
  • Without self-control, there is no real mastery of anything.

So, who do you think is powerful, and why?  Send me your thoughts at

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