7701 16th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20012
Info@Tifereth-Israel.org

Rabbi Seidel Drash Rosh Hashanah Day 2 | Power & Corruption | 5772 (2011)

Rabbi Seidel Drash - Power & Corruption
Rosh Hashanah Day 2 - 5772 (2011) 

 

This summer, Rachel and I spent a pleasant few days in Saranac Lake, a sleepy little town in the Adirondacks.  We mostly took walks in the woods, admiring the scenery.  But one afternoon, after an exhausting hike, we decided to treat ourselves, and we ventured into the nearby bustling metropolis of Lake Placid.  The traffic in Lake Placid was heavy, and as I looked for a place to park, it was starting to feel like home, and not in a good way.  But then, I saw a car with some great bumper stickers. 

One of them you may have seen: it read: "Jesus is coming - look busy."  I love that bumper sticker.  I realize that it is probably meant to be a dig at Christians, and I don't like that.  Though frankly, it seems like a gentle dig, if it is in fact a dig at all.  Anyway, what I like about this slogan "Jesus is coming - look busy" is that it seems to be speaking about tikkun olam.  Of course I have to Judaize the bumper sticker a little to get there, but I think it speaks to anyone who thinks that there is an ultimate plan in the universe, anyone who thinks that our actions are important to reaching this goal.  Whatever you think about the end time - whether you're a Christian and are confident about what that end time will look like, or you're a Jew and have no idea what the end time might entail - shouldn't you be busy trying to bring about a better world?  Anyway, it seemed like a good message for Lake Placid, with its expensive stores and stylish denizens.

But this car had another bumper sticker that was entirely new to me.  I just got a glimpse of it - it was so good I had Rachel get out pencil and paper and write it down, since I was driving.  This one read: "Jesus would have used his turn signal".  Again, I'm not positive exactly what was meant - was this also a possible belittling of a belief in Jesus?  If so, it wasn't nice.  Though again, neither was it harsh.  And again, I read this bumper sticker with Jewish eyes: I read it as saying: "You can believe whatever dogma you want about whomever you want - Jesus, Moses, Buddha, Mohammed, whatever, but if you omit the common courtesies that make life bearable, if you can't be bothered to use your turn signal - well you bely whatever grand scheme it is you claim to follow.  Whether you're a devout Christian, or a devout Jew - if you don't bother with the niceties, if you drive dangerously, if you live in a self-centered way that hurts others - you are a hypocrite.

Which brings me - albeit in a roundabout way - to today's difficult Torah portion.  Any way you try to understand this Torah portion, you're left with serious problems.  The plain meaning of the parasha seems to be that if you hear God asking you to sacrifice your child, well, that is what you must do.  In this reading, Abraham passes the test, because Abraham's faith in God trumps Abraham's obligation as a father to protect his son.  The problem with this reading of the story of course is that it goes against our Jewish tendencies - we Jews tend to put our obligations to our fellow human beings ahead of our obligations to God.  In fact, we tend to evaluate our allegiance to God, not by our sacrifices, or the depth of our faith, but rather by how well we treat our fellow humans.  It's the one who uses his turn signals who really shows how much he cares about God's creation. 

There are plenty of examples from our tradition.  As it says in the Talmud (Shabbat 127a) our obligation to welcome a stranger takes precedence over our obligation to welcome the Shechinah, God's presence. In another passage  - you've probably heard this one - (Avot d'Rabbi Natan ch. 31 - in Nusach B) Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai notes that if you are planting a tree, and you hear that the Messiah has come, you should finish planting the tree, and only then welcome the Messiah. 

In fact, in the Torah reading we read last Shabbat, we have another statement of this idea.  In Deuteronomy 30 (verses 11, 14, 19) we read: "Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.  It is not in the heavens...No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it...I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life, that you and your offspring shall live."   It's hard to square all this with Abraham, sneaking off to sacrifice Isaac because of a religious obligation.  That's hardly choosing life.

So how do we handle today's parashah, which seems to express the opposite idea: loyalty to God's most bizarre command takes precedence even over one's own flesh and blood?  Well, we can read this parashah in a Midrashic way - though that has its own problems.  We can suggest that Abraham failed the test by his willingness to sacrifice his son.  Abraham should have told God from the beginning: "Forget it God, I am not sacrificing my child".  But this still leaves us with the same vexing question: why would God propose such a cruel test to begin with?  

And why this test now?  It doesn't fit in with the rest of Abraham's life.  The whole Abraham narrative is a progression of tests in which Abraham gradually develops his faith in God.  At the beginning of the Abraham story, Abraham doesn't trust God's promise of the land, and leaves for Egypt as soon as there is a famine.  Later, Abraham doesn't trust God that he will have a child through Sarah, so he consorts with Hagar, the Egyptian handmaid.  But Abraham learns from his failure to trust.  He returns from Egypt to the promised land, and he leaves Hagar and stays with Sarah.  The binding of Isaac would make most sense, if it showed how trusting of God Abraham had come to be.  Whereas, if in our midrashic reading, we make the binding of Isaac into another failure, the whole Abraham story is very much weakened. 

Either way you look at this story: whether Abraham is to be praised for his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, or Abraham is to be criticized for that willingness to sacrifice his son - it doesn't work. 

So, this year, inspired by Imagining Madoff (the play that just finished its run at Theatre J) I propose to read the story both ways.  Neither way of reading the Akedah works on its own, but the two readings taken together speak to me.  I've been thinking about the story in terms of power - the corrupting influence of power, on the one hand, and the necessity of wielding power, on the other.  I want to argue that Abraham overstepped the bounds of parental and religious authority on the one hand, but at the same time, I want to argue that parental and religious authority are necessary for the proper conduct of our lives.  Just as power is both a necessity and a danger, our parashah must be read both ways.

 Here's an example from my years of teaching Hebrew school.  At different points during the Hebrew School year, I make sure to sneak in some questions about my students' home lives.  I like to get a sense of how our kids are being raised, what their lives are like, what in their lives I should be reinforcing, what I should be encouraging them to question.  For example, we might be talking about the concept of duty, of obligation.  The general topic might be: What are our duties as Jews?  But to help them understand that question, I need to begin with a question they know something about: their duties as children in a family.  So I might introduce the topic by asking them:  Do you have any chores at home?  If so, what chores do you have?  If a student grasps the importance of chores as a family member, it's easier for them to understand that they might also have obligations as a member of the Jewish people.

And there's another thing I've discovered about chores.  I can't help but note a striking correlation between a student's ability to concentrate in class, and the existence of chores at home.   A student who is disciplined at home tends to be disciplined at school.  Now I don't want to go too far with this correlation: I myself wasn't always the most attentive child in Hebrew School, and I had plenty of discipline at home.  But it would be a mistake to deny the correlation entirely.  Which brings me back to power - parental power in particular.  Parents who exercise just and rightful authority do their kids a big favor.  And they make Hebrew School teachers' lives a lot easier as well.

Now, I don't want to pretend that getting children to do chores is a simple task.  In fact, it's arduous.  If you're actually trying to get some work done around the house, it's often a lot easier just to do it yourself, than to beg, bribe, nag, or even God forbid yell at the child in whom you are trying to inculcate good habits.  And what's worse, it can take years - years of consistency, calm repetition of expectations, and calm visiting of consequences upon slackers, before adult responsibleness takes hold.  And even so, that newfound adult responsibleness may be much more evident outside the house, than inside - you may rarely get to enjoy seeing first hand what you've created.  But there's no other way.  If we want a society in which people use turn signals, in which people have the discipline to think about other's needs, we must inculcate this civic virtue at home.

I worry we are too often loathe to use our power.  We think of the Akedah, and we don't want to be like Abraham was with Isaac.  So we back off.  The Akedah reminds us of the famous quote: "Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely."  We tend to think of power as mostly, or even entirely bad.  We like the motto "Live and let Live".  Which is a nice motto as far as it goes.  But will it inspire us to use our turn signals?

As it turns out, however, that quote about "Power corrupts" has been changed a bit from the original.  Thanks to the internet, and phrases.org, I learned that this famous quote comes from Lord Acton, and a letter he wrote in 1887.  Here's the original:

 

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men.

That's a little more nuanced then the modern popular version.  Listen again:

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men.

From the original I get the feeling not of a simplistic "power is bad", but rather "power is dangerous".  I get the sense not that one should avoid power, but that one should be exceedingly careful in wielding it.

 

Here's another example, from probably the most influential movie of this past year, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, the finally final movie of that interminable series.  Actually, I must confess that I enjoyed the movie.   My favorite part was when Harry, having defeated the evil Voldemort, broke the Elder Wand.  This is the wand that makes invincible the wizard who controls it, and Harry ends up with it at the end of the movie.  I'll spare you the Talmudic complexity of this wand's history, and why Voldemort was not invincible, even though he had the wand - ask a child if you really need to know.  Suffice it to say, that after the bad guy is killed, at the end of the movie (or what should have been the end of the movie), Harry destroys the wand.  Harry worries that with the absolute power afforded by the Elder Wand, Harry too will be corrupted, just as his archenemy was corrupted.  It's a good moment.  I confess I may have shed a tear at Harry's daring act.

Alas, the filmmakers - following the author of the book - don't let the story end there.  Oh no, there's got to be a saccharine postscript scene, a scene I found not only artistically bankrupt, but morally problematic.  In the postscript we see Harry, now older, and married, bringing his own child to the train that will take his child to Hogwarts for the first time.  Very sweet.  Too sweet.

The scene is not just saccharine, but repellent.  My problem: do we think for a moment that Harry Potter, the guy who saved all of wizardry - actually the whole word - would end up being just an ordinary person?  Harry, the brave and sensitive hero could just drop all of that power and prestige he had earned, and go back to being an anonymous Dad?  Didn't Dumbledore himself say to Harry: "With great power comes great responsibility."  If you've been given power, do you have the right not to use it for good?

To return to the quote from Lord Acton: Great men are almost always bad men.  What would Harry have become?  Admittedly, we're way outside the bounds of kiddie literature now.  We can't expect a children's author to lead us into the necessarily dark, and ambiguous paths of adulthood.  If she'd ended her tale at the breaking of the Elder Wand, she wouldn't have had to lie about a false happy-end.  For when you have as much power as Harry had - with or without the wand - there is no simple happy end.

There is only the Akedah.  The necessity of using power.  And the inevitability of making mistakes.   With power, those inevitable mistakes will be all the more damaging.  Abraham had power: as a father in a culture where parental authority was nearly absolute, and as a powerful religious leader.  In ancient times, like today, preacher's kids had it rough.  But I don't blame Abraham for what he tried to do.  After all, he didn't become a leader by ignoring God's voice, by avoiding risk.  He went off in an entirely new, dangerous direction - a direction we still follow.  He may well have done the wrong thing in this parasha, with his willingness to sacrifice Isaac - but Abraham was a great man, and great men will inevitably do awful things.  This is life.

 I have struggled with this issue of power.  My natural tendency is to avoid it.  I would never have planned to sacrifice my child, as did Abraham.   I would never abuse my power as a religious leader and father.  I would surely have broken the Elder Wand, as did Harry Potter.  But the flip side of that is that I have often been slow to lead this congregation, too much afraid of abusing my authority of Rabbi. 

I was reminded of this weakness by a congregant a number of years ago.  We were discussing an area in which TI needed improvement, and we found that we basically agreed with each other - our TI community had a problem.   However, my attitude towards the problem was basically hand-wringing - I wished something could be done about it.   At which point she said: "Some of us feel, Rabbi, that you haven't really shown leadership in this area."

It was a brutally direct comment.  It was exactly what I needed to hear.   If memory serves, I stammered for a bit, and then admitted she was right.  And then, with her help, and the help of other congregants, all of us together, we worked successfully on the issue.  Thank God for friends who don't shrink from telling you what you need to hear.  In general, though, I tend to  hand-wringing over action.  Much safer.  At least in the short run.  And I don't have to worry about power corrupting me.  I can remain humble, and pure.

I've come to realize that there is a false humility in the avoidance of power.  It's a play-it-safe mode that does not do me or the congregation any good.  And it's only safe in the short run.  In the long run, fleeing from power is anything but safe - someone will always appear to rush in and take charge, and that may not be good at all. 

A passage from the Talmud struck me this year, in this regard - I included it on page two of the packet.  In Brachot 10b, we are told

אל יעמוד אדם במקום גבוה ויתפלל

"A person should not stand in a high place, and pray from there."  The prooftext the Talmud uses is that great verse from Psalm 130:1

ממעמקים קראתיך ה'

"From the depths I have called unto you, Adonai"

 

I used to think that being humble, praying from a low place, was as simple as just feeling humble.  Like the siddur says: "What are we, what our righteousness, what our salvation?  We are no better than animals; even the wisest sage is nothing before you, God."  As long as I kept that passage from the siddur in mind, I would have avoided praying from the high place, I would be humble. 

Now I see that life is not so simple.  Avoidance of power is just an avoidance of responsibility, under the guise of humility.  Through this avoidance I may avoid getting corrupted by power, but I cannot sneer self-righteously at those who have tried to use power for good, and failed.   Through avoidance of power, I may think I have reached the moral high ground.  But that high ground is precisely the place the Talmud was warning me about; it is a high ground from which I cannot honestly pray. 

Here's another example of flight from power - medical power.  Over the last few years I have read a number of articles about doctors' reluctance to recommend life-style changes to their patients.  The doctors don't think it's worth their time, because your average person is just not going to be able to stop smoking, or start exercising, or eat healthier.  I understand the doctors' reluctance - why confront a patient about their bad habits, and risk encountering some nasty pushback, risk harming the doctor-patient relationship - why, if the advice is unlikely to be accepted.  Easier to prescribe medication than to criticize.  But where does that leave us, as a society, if we've all given up on teshuvah? 

Is repentance impossible?  If so, we Jews are wasting a lot of time during these Days of Awe.  One thing that keeps me believing in the possibility of repentance, is reading my journal.   I like to read my journal before the Holidays, to remember where I've been.  But it can often remind me how far I've come.  This year, since it's 2011, I decided to read the years ending in the number 1 - 1981, 1991, and 2001.  I was surprised by what I found.

My journal entries from 1981 were infuriating.  As I read them, I wanted to reach back 30 years and wring my callow neck.  It's not that I was completely un-self-aware.  I realized that I was often short-tempered, and unappreciative, and moody, and I clearly felt bad about it.  But I couldn't seem to muster any energy to change.  In my defense, it was a hard year - among other issues, I was trying to figure out what my career should be.  I was having some success as computer programmer, but it just didn't feel like what I'd been created to do.  And I had bad knees that always seemed to swell up in times of stress.

Anyway, as infuriating as I found my 24 year old self, there were also times that I felt exhilirated reading those journal entries.  I could see that I have actually gotten better.  I wrestle with some of the same problems I used to wrestle with, sometimes no more skillfully. But there are other things about me that I have improved.  Teshuva is not impossible.  It may not always be possible - clearly, there are some things about myself that I may never be able to change.  But at the same time, in some areas teshuva is possible.  Each year is not the same.  It may take awhile to see the change - maybe even 30 years, but the change is there. I do have some power.  And there are times I've used it well.

You too.  You have the power to better yourself.  You can improve your actions, the small things you do in the relationships you inhabit, the big things you decide for yourselves and others.  It's all too easy to imagine that we are nothing, unworthy, and our actions are of no consequence in the grand scheme of things.  Easy to think we have no power - whether in our personal or professional lives.  And if we do have power, we should not ever use it, lest we come to abuse it.

You may remember the fiasco in Maryland just this last summer with regard to sunscreen at summer camps.  It turned out that the state of Maryland had rules that "direct[ed] camps to steer counselors away from helping children apply sunscreen.[1]"  There was also a "ban on children assisting each other in putting on sunscreen."  The reason?  The "health department's ... assistant director ... said that policy was intended to keep children safe from inappropriate touching by counselors or other children."  After a public outcry, the policy was reversed.

But how did this policy come about in the first place?  Because some touching was abuse, thought the health department, no touching should be allowed.  What's next?  Logically, since most such abuse is at the hands of parents and relatives, should we also prohibit parents from touching their children.  That's where the danger is, much more than with camp counselors. 

The whole thing was crazy.  And as I mentioned, the policy was quickly reversed.  But I ask you, today: do we make the same kinds of mistakes in our own lives?  Do we flee from doing good, lest we use our power for bad?  Do we have some "do-no-harm" policies in our own lives that cause more harm than they prevent.

Today, on Rosh HaShanah, we remind ourselves of our obligations to each other.  Of how we propose to inhabit the coming year.  I am here to say: do not retreat from your authority.  Trust yourselves.  Not that you'll use your power perfectly, of course.  No-one uses their influence perfectly.  Not you, not me, not even our father Abraham.  But do not err on the other side, do not avoid authority, and the responsibility that comes with it.  We need to trust ourselves with power if we are to make our lives, and this world a better place in the coming year.

 

 


[1] These quotes are from Marc Fisher's article in the Washington Post, 7/2/2011