A Powerful Elixir

What do the following people have in common? A general leading his army into battle, a politician huddled over his polling statistics, and a young man prowling the inner-city streets with an attitude that says, “My turf. Stay away if you know what’s good for you!”

All three share a common denominator that energizes and motivates them. That commonality is power: having it, seeking it, and trying desperately to hold onto it.

Power draws some people the way catnip draws the feline species. The craving for power is a magnet, a goal and a manacle all at the same time. From earliest memory, as we lie helpless in our bassinets, the weakest of the weak in a world filled with terrifying forces and dangers, every human being yearns for the power to protect itself. Later in life, many are content to live their lives in placid anonymity, embracing a motto of, “I won’t bother you if you don’t bother me.” Others are not satisfied with that. They engage in the pursuit of ever-more-potent symbols of strength. They set out to climb a ladder that will allow them to tower above the common run of humanity. They seek to wield power over others.

Power is a funny thing. Most of us probably think, “I could handle power.” But, like the first sip of whiskey, the first drag on a cigarette or an encounter with an addictive drug, power has a way of going straight to one’s head. It has the ability to addle that head, filling it with the conviction that power is the ultimate aim of life. Having it, seeking it, and trying desperately to hold onto it…

In the quest to cling to power, a person will frequently behave the way any addict does: ruthlessly pushing aside all obstacles that stand in the way of his craving.

What, you may wonder, does any of this have to do with you? You’re no Napoleon. You’re no Alexander the Great. You’re not even running for the district council! We may not be generals, politicians or inner-city gang leaders, but each of us confronts a choice of how to deal with power, the power we have and the power we wished we had. We face it in our homes, in our classrooms and in our workplaces. Power struggles are, unfortunately, a part of life, as are its corollaries, control and honor.

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I think we can all relate to the desire for control. We have a vision of how things should be and are prepared to exert a certain measure of control to actualize that vision.

Exerting control means a demonstration of power. Each time we “force” our children to brush their teeth, we are effectively saying, “I am more powerful than you. Therefore, I can get you to do something that you don’t necessarily want to do.” As devoted parents, we try to use our power wisely and in the child’s best interest. But even the best parent may occasionally throw her weight around her nerves, or just because power feels good. Ditto for teachers in the classroom. Power can easily go to our heads and fog our vision.

Power is like a dangerous weapon: handle with care.

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The second corollary of power is the desire for honor. Most people in positions of power are accorded a higher status in the social hierarchy, along with all the perks and honor attendant on that status. And honor, like power, feels good.

One can all too easily get used to having people bow to your wishes and treat you with adulation.

Pirkei Avos warns us about the desire for honor. It has the power to “remove a person from the world.” What does this mean? I think it means exactly what it would mean if a person were addicted to drugs. As his craving increases, all he can think about is obtaining more. It colors his thinking; any slight to his honor is viewed as a mortal outrage, a fatal offense. People are quickly placed into categories: you’re either with me, treating me with the honor I demand, or against me. Those unfortunate enough to fall into the latter category can become the recipients of bitter ire, hateful slander, or worse.

A classic example is Yerovam, the brilliant but wicked king of Israel who, the Gemora tells us, was offered the deal of a lifetime by Hakadosh Boruch Hu. “Do teshuvah,” Hashem told him, “and you will walk in Gan Eden with Me and Dovid Hamelech.”

Yerovam’s incredible response? “Who will take precedence, Dovid or me?”

The desire for honor makes us super-sensitive about ourselves, but usually renders us much less sensitive than we should be to others, because we’re so self-absorbed that we can’t really see them anymore.

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The world needs leaders. But it needs leaders strong enough to resist the siren song of power for its own sake.

We need leaders whose desire for control is tailored to reality and threaded through with kavod habriyos, a genuine respect for other people. We need leaders secure enough to laugh at honor and flee at the sight of its beckoning fingers.

Fortunately, we have such a leader to emulate. A leader whose only concern was to teach his people how to serve their G-d. A leader who even implored, “Erase me from Your book!” when he thought such a demand would benefit his people. A leader utterly selfless and simultaneously imbued with the most realistic sense of self there can be: the self as a vessel for the Divine.

Moshe Rabbeinu taught us what true leadership means. He was granted complete power over Klal Yisroel and he used that power the way it was meant to be used: as a tool, not as the goal. His need to control was not a personal compulsion, but a desire to carry out Hashem’s will. Similarly, his appetite for personal honor was non-existent. Power, in the hands of such a person, is a safe bet.

Dovid Hamelech serves as another perfect role model. Another divinely-appointed ruler, he came equipped with a personal novi who never missed an opportunity to chastise and rebuke the king whenever he crossed the line. Dovid always humbly accepted the rebuke. Like Moshe Rabbeinu, Dovid Hemelech lived to serve. He knew that wielding power means bearing responsibility.

Our great historical leaders knew how to use their power correctly. Gedolim throughout the centuries have traditionally run from honor. Control, for them, is something you exert upon your own character, not other people. Even Hashem Yisborach consulted the angels before creating man to teach us this lesson. These examples serve as potent role models for our own lives.

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No one likes to feel helpless; we all want a measure of control over our surroundings. No one likes to feel weak; we’re not averse to having a tad of power at our fingertips. A smidgen of honor can feel very pleasant now and then. But there should be a flashing red sign: Warning! Addictive behavior!

People who love honor and power are not happy people. Cravings have a way of leaving a person perpetually unsatisfied. Power, in the wrong hands, can cause serious damage. Handled correctly, and viewed in its proper light, it is nothing more or less than a tool for shaping the world in accordance with Hashem’s wishes.