William Hamilton

Power or Influence

“The only place of consensus is the cemetery” laments Rikva Carmi, President of Ben Gurion University. This sobering observation about the deep divisions in our discourse was reinforced this week in the wake of the wrongful death of Otto Warmbier after a brutal year of unjust incarceration by the North Korean regime.

Power-hungry conflict is the centerpiece of this week’s portion of Torah. Rebellions by Korah and his cohort are punitively put down.  Yet the people’s immediate response is agitation.  “All the congregation of Israel complained the next day (memacharat) against Moses and Aaron” (Num. 17:6).  The people repudiate the demise of even those deserving punishment (Num. 16:32-34).  What puts a stop to this infernal escalation of anger and violence?  Not an earth-jolting reprimand, but a fragrant and gentle message.  “It was on the next day (memacharat) that Aaron’s staff had blossomed, flowering with a blossom that produced almonds” (Num. 17:23).  Calm presides only after the flowering of Aaron’s staff (va-yatzeitz tzitz).  The mention of tzitz brings us back to the fringes of our garments (tzitzit) for help in addressing our society’s knottiest problems.  These four quarter fringes with which last week’s portion concluded, surround us with an aromatic scent designed to dispel odious toxins.  Incense acts to vacate the incensed. 

This resolution points to an important biblical bias in favor of influence over power.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes a thought experiment.  Imagine you have total power.  You then decide to share it with nine others.  The result: you have one-tenth of the power you used to have.  Imagine, by contrast, that you elect to share your measure of influence with nine others.  How much influence do you have left?  Not less, but more.  Prior to your sharing, there was only one espouser of your cause.  After you share, there are ten champions of it.  Power operates by division, while influence operates by multiplication.  God’s Torah and Prophets carry a vital lesson for religions of the world – they acquire influence when they relinquish power.  As Rabbi Sacks expresses, “When religion divests itself of power, it is freed from the burden of rearranging the deckchairs on the ship of state and returns to its real task: changing lives.”

Today’s disagreements are so disagreeable.  And the Talmud offers a timely reminder: “Power buries those who wield it”(Yoma 86b).  May a shift from the hoarding of power to the distribution of influence help us manage our conflicts more fragrantly.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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