Jewish Journal

Personal Power

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-26:2 )

by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

Posted on May. 6, 1999 at 8:00 pm

Let's face it. We love the feeling of power. We love it at work, we love it at shul, we even love it at home. The capacity to exert power over the people and things around us not only enhances our general feelings of personal security, but also satisfies our primal, subconscious urge to "be someone." (Perhaps I'm being generous in ascribing the drive for power to the subconscious.)

Unfortunately, though predictably, our capacity to exert power often becomes hopelessly entangled with our larger sense of identity; we are the power that we exert, whether as boss, parent, or chairperson. This entanglement brings with it of course, a powerful vulnerability. Each one of us has witnessed, at one time or another, the tragic collapse of an individual's entire personality and sense of self, upon his losing the professional or familial power that he had always held heretofore. It's a very sad thing to behold. It reaffirms our belief that there must be more to life than the pursuit of personal power. In the parashat we read this Shabbat morning, God presents the grand national ritual intended to insure that we would never forget this fact. (I am thankful to my friend and teacher Rabbi Saul Berman for this insight.)

Every seven years, the Torah tells us, we are to go through the exercise of actually relinquishing elements of our personal power. The "sabbatical year" described at the outset, was a year in which we relinquished power over our land, as well as over our neighbors. In that year, we would not plow or seed our fields, nor prune or harvest our vineyards and orchards. During that year, we would allow anyone to enter our property and partake of whatever was growing there. The power to bend the earth to our will, and the power to build fences and to force people to go around them, would both be foregone in that year. And as a result, we would need to establish personal identities for ourselves that were not connected to what and whom we had power over.

In the sabbatical year, we would also forgo loans that were due us. The Torah recognizes (as I'm sure we all do as well) that there is a significant power imbalance between a creditor and a debtor. This is the key to understanding the otherwise inexplicable command that is recorded in Exodus 22:24, "if thou lend money to any of My people thou shalt not be to him as a creditor." What could it mean that a creditor should "not be as a creditor?" It could only mean, as Nachmanidies explains it, that when we lend money we are prohibited to have the attitude of a creditor. We must resist with all our might the feeling of personal power that could very well result from someone else literally being indebted to us. In the sabbatical year, we go further, and actually erase any indebtedness that others might have to us. In doing so we relinquish our personal power of creditor over debtor, and understand that our ability to exert power is extraneous to, not integral to, the essence of our identities.

The value of this lesson is inestimable. As parents, we are always dealing with the natural efforts of our children to wrest themselves from our power. In the workplace, where power is often regarded as being the ultimate prize, we invariably have co-workers who attempt to resist or limit our personal power. What happens to us if we perceive these challenges as threats to our fundamental identities? What happens to us and our loved ones if we feel negated as human beings every time we lose a power battle? The ability to locate our self-worth and basic dignity outside our power-exerting capacities is critical to our happiness and productivity. We need to achieve our sense of "being someone" through what we are able to give, and through the blessings we are able to bestow, not through the persons or things we are able to control. For the only kind of power that is ultimately relevant to the essence of who we are, is the power to make a difference.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B'nai David-Judea Congregation.

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