I want to share a story about a couple who’ve been married for 19 years.
Their relationship is a series of power plays in which they subtly and sometimes not so subtly try to control one another.
They're’ from the Boston area.
They have 2 kids
. Both have special needs – one learning, one emotional. She used to work outside of the home, has a PhD in science, but stopped working when her children’s needs became a full time job.
He makes a good living in law.
Here’s where their control issues come to play: She wants to move from the big city, to be in a house surrounded by trees, have a less-stressful life, downsize their financial pressures and be able to reconnect with her professional passion.
He says she’s not realistic, he needs to work long hours in his big-city practice to support their family’s needs. How could she insist that they move away from his parents just because she’s unhappy with the big city? How could she uproot their family right at the time their kids are finally enrolled in suitable schools that address their learning and emotional challenges?
She says he doesn’t consider her feelings, wants and needs. Though she loves him, she’s lonely and disconnected from her husband.
He says he doesn’t want to leave his city of birth and won’t move just because she’s unhappy.
They’re literally stuck, frozen in their apartment and their marriage – because neither one is willing to compromise. Like two people in a boxing ring they stand in position waiting to see who will fall first.
Their power play deeply upsets me – as hear about how they manipulate each other in order to control their family’s future. Rather than work together as a unit, their marriage is game of who will win and who will lose.
Listen, marriage can be difficult –anyone who tells you otherwise – is lying. But frankly, ALL relationships have the capacity to lure us into power plays – in which we try to gain control over another person or a situation.
These dynamics play out at work and school, between genders, in social media, over the environment, among nations, and between religions.
Exerting one’s control over another is pervasive. And as a result it can rip apart our homes, our character and our world.
Now it’s true that sometimes it’s necessary to control and dominate another person if we’re bullied or if a nation feels its safety is endangered. But today I’d like to look at the many power plays we partake in that destroy our souls, and offer 3 some ways we can avoid the allure of trying to dominate and control others.
Let’s start with Torah.
Unfortunately Torah’s very familiar with power and control. In Deuteronomy, Moses blesses the Israelites:
“Be the head and not the tail.” (Deut. 28:13)
It’s as if to be blessed we need to be both in control of our subordinates, and be controlling of them.
The head looks forward, not back.
The head advances onward, without negotiating with its tail. Yet effective leaders are often those who use their positions of power to empower others.
What about taking the back seat sometimes or listening to the opinion of those we lead?
How about the value of being a follower or collaborator?
It’s a tough tension, because even God teaches us to relish power. Torah describes how God encourages Adam to name all the animals of the earth – an ancient tactic of acquiring control over living beings.
And frankly the power to name, can be a very positive tool of control even today.
As of this February, Facebook gives everyone the option of choosing to name oneself from 51 gender categories.
A person can be: Agender, bigender, cis, gender fluid, gender nonconforming, gender variant, intersex, pan gender or transgender (to list a few) – & if you don’t know what some of these gender categories are – you’re not alone.
The point is – I imagine that those of us who are one of these genders feel validated when we can actively name ourselves. (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/02/15/the-complete-glossary-of-facebook-s-51-gender-options.html).
Yet naming others in a demeaning or controlling way can be used as a way of exerting power over someone else. Perhaps you’ve heard of how ISIS “educates” their soldiers to name their captured women ibadah – meaning “worship,” and then instructs their soldiers to pray before they rape them, and then pray after they rape them –
justifying their violation as a “prayer to God,”
telling the women that they are their ibadah – their tools of worship. I find this obscene … (NYT, Enslaving Young Girls, Aug 14, 2015)
The Torah also gives many examples of power plays between brothers and sisters.
Remember when the siblings Miriam and Aaron criticize Moses for having a close relationship with God? (Numbers 11)
It’s as if they’re vying for “Big-daddy-in-the-sky’s” attention. Sounds like the dinner fight my brothers and I would have around our table –
who got to sit at the head, how much extra food were we served, who was mom and dad’s favorite & who had to wash the dishes.
And the competition and one-upmanship sadly continues when we become “grown up” siblings:
•Like the tension when a father dies and leaves his children unequal inheritance without an explanation. • or a sister- in-law who’s controlling and pushes her spouse into a family feud…..
These power plays are usually about attention and love ….. and often they leak into our bedrooms.
Think of the power and manipulation our patriarch Jacob held over his two wives -who were sisters – Rachel and Leah.
I imagine they wondered who he’d go home to each night and if he favored one over the other.
Today there are many spouses who wonder whether their partner is out late at a business meeting -
or finding intimacy with someone he met on-line
or through work.
How about the manipulative power in the business world? Think of Korach, in the Torah, who wanted even more control than he already had as a Levite (Numbers 16:1+).
He criticized Moses for being power hungry
even though it’s clear that Korach was really interested in promoting his own ego needs.
This type of power-play in the office is all too common today. Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook and author of Lean In, cited a recent study that found that when women executives speak more than their peers,
They’re punished with 14% lower ratings,
but when male executives speak more than their peers, they’re rewarded with 10% higher ratings of competence. Sexual hypocrisy has not disappeared from our conference rooms.
(NYT “Speaking While Female”, Jan 12, 2015).
And how about domination over women in many parts of the world today?
Should we take literally, the Torah’s teaching that when a man goes to war he can take any woman he wants by power after 30 days of bringing her into his house… or should we follow other biblical injunctions that teach that all human beings are created in the image of God? (Genesis 1 and Deut. 21:10-14)
The 14.2 million women and girls who are sold into slavery each year are told they are a man’s booty, while I assume most of us understand this as an outdated justification of holy texts to manipulate and control the vulnerable.
(UNFPA, 2012, Marrying Too Young: End Child Marriage. New York: United Nations Population Fund).
Then there’s the power we humans have wielded over our environment.
Remember what the Torah teaches: after humanity was created God told us “to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and watch over it.” (Gen 1:28)
But what’s going on today?!
We’re not protecting our environment.
Instead of watching over our earth
we’re watching as we level our forests,
strip the earth of its resources
and create a global warming disaster.
Let’s not ignore our children –
how about the power-plays in our schools?
It’s no wonder many public & private schools have instituted uniforms to try to level the playing field –
and even then it becomes about what shoes you wear,
your haircut or jewelry –
anything to show your status.
Or consider how social media has become a tool to manipulate and influence one’s “friends.”
Now with a swipe of a finger 25% of teenagers report that they’ve experienced repeated bullying via their cell phone or on the internet, and of the teens who reported cyber bullying incidents, 33% of them said that their bullies issued online threats. (http://nobullying.com/cyber-bullying-statistics-2014/
Power in marriages, among friends, between family members, in the work place, between men and women, over the environment and on social media – are constant tightropes we all traverse. How much we dominate, pull, push back, speak out, submit, or resign ourselves to the allure of participating in these power dynamics- constantly changes.
At work we may be submissive, while at home very dominant – Or vice versa….
This year in America, we can’t ignore the light that’s exposed the power-plays between white and black people.
The Midrash teaches that the reason one “Adam”, one person, was created first, and not two people – not Adam and Eve – was so no person could say “My ancestors are greater than yours.”(Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
In other words, no matter our color, race, culture or gender – we all come from the same place and we’re all equal.
Yet – that’s not the world we live in.
Just look at the streets of Ferguson, Mo where Michael Brown was killed, or Staten Island where Eric Garner was choked to death.
As a white women reading Ta-Nehisi Coats’ book Between The World and Me I felt embarrassed.
He shares that “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology.
The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.”
His words upset me.
I wondered as a white, relatively privileged American – what I do, subconsciously, to promote and accept racism around me?
Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress, taught: “racism is so universal in this country,
so widespread and deep seated, that it’s invisible because it is so normal.”
And I wonder: how have I actively or passively participated in the invisible nature of racism?
Am I engaged in my own power-plays and not even aware of them?
Talking about race in America – and how it’s connected to power is very uncomfortable.
I confess with shame that when I worked in Central Park for 3 summers during high school, I resented and felt deep dislike toward the Puerto Rican community.
You see every year, in early June, there was a Puerto Rican parade down 5th Avenue – right next to the park – and the whole surrounding area would get trashed.
After the parade, the community would go into the park and BBQ (which was illegal),
leave their garbage everywhere (also illegal)
and drink alcohol in public (illegal).
I deeply resented the Puerto Ricans.
And then…. And then a close relative, who I love dearly, married a Puerto Rican. And she’s wonderful.
And her sister and parents are good, kind, caring people.
I had to confront my racism and rework how I viewed the Puerto Rican community.
I was forced to see them as individuals, rather than as one group of people.
And of course I have to make note of some radical Jewish extremists whose warped power-play deeply embarrassed me this year.
Though as Jews we don’t promote racism as part of our ideology, as say ISIS does, I was horrified when a Jewish extremist at this summer’s LGBT parade in Jerusalem stabbed Shira Banki to death, a 16 year old girl.
And then on that same weekend in July, a group of Jewish radicals threw two firebombs into 2 Palestinian homes, in the West Bank, in the middle of the night, killing an 18-month-old boy and his parents.
That’s a sick corruption of Jewish power!
In all these examples of control, dominance and power – whether it’s in a relationship, in the office, between genders, of the environment, among races, religions and nations – what’s gained?
Why is the allure of control so seductive?
And why do we continually fall into the trap of participating in power plays?
Well, first – Clarity.
Being right is so satisfying.
But sometimes our ability to distinguish right from wrong becomes blurry:
whether it’s a spouse gone astray,
a boss who favors men,
a white cop who strangles a black guy,
an ISIS solider before he rapes his “wife”…
we believe we are right because we justify our actions with human desire, history, culture, society or religion on our side.
What else is gained? –
the self-indulgent notion that the most important person is me, my wants, my desires, my point of view.
When we put “me” at the center –
we misled ourselves into thinking that everything that goes my way, is the best way.
And when we only look at one side,
we strip away any hope for sympathy, empathy and respect – ingredients for a balanced relationship.
And with these false gains of power plays, what’s lost? So much more.
As Yehudah Amichai, Israel’s poet laureate once wrote: From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right is hard and trampled Like a yard.
God made the world with different people, holding several points of views and various dispositions to teach us that one way isn’t the only way.
And ironically – when we focus on dominating or manipulating others, our relationships feel disconnected, stuck and stagnant.
The author Shannon L. Adler describes the effects of yielding our power in relationships:
“When you think yours is the only true path you forever chain yourself to judging others and narrow the vision of God. (You see) The road to righteousness and arrogance is a parallel road…. but what makes them different is the road to righteousness is paved with the love of humanity — while the road to arrogance is paved with the love of self.”
I’d like to offer some ways we can walk the road of righteousness and escape the allure of the road of power- plays- to improve our relationships and the world we live.
First — I’ve found that the less I take the bait of a power-play, step back, take a pause, and recalibrate my goal of connecting rather than dominating, the more I deepen my relationships to those I love.
It’s really about walking the road of Teshuvah. And I don’t mean Teshuvah as a noun – it’s not “say you’re sorry.”
Instead it’s Teshuvah as a verb:
●It’s the act of taking a deep, honest, hard look at oneself.
●It’s the proactive review of one’s strengths and weaknesses. ●It’s the courageous act of sharing those insights with someone you trust or with God.
●And it’s the counter cultural choice to change what’s not working in your life, rather than blaming others.
If we really do this, it’s no longer about whose on top,
who’s right, or who’s winning the competition-
instead it’s about uniting, joining & coming together with those we love, those with whom we work, or those who have a different skin color, gender, culture or religion than we do.
It’s no wonder the NYT Modern Love column “Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This” generated more than 5.2 million visits since its publication in January.
In case you missed it, Mandy Len Catron described a Cupid— like technique she developed of 36 questions,
which get increasingly intimate in nature,
that 2 people can answer while facing each other.
Apparently, if you follow her list of questions, any two people, even strangers, can fall in love! (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/fashion/modern-love- to-fall-in-love-with-anyone-do-this.html)
The reason this technique is so powerful is because it’s really an act of Teshuvah. Teshuvah as an honest self-assessment
and Teshuvah as a turning toward the person you want to become – which has temporarily been covered with layers of arrogance or inflexibility…..
Take out your mirrors for a moment. (Note: mirrors with questions on the back were put on everyone’s seat)
The ones on your seats.
This is my gift to each of us: Our Teshuvah mirrors.
On it you’ll find 5 questions – like the 5 books of Moses. Each one focuses on a different aspect of our lives that may have succumbed to the allure of power.
The first is about an interpersonal relationship:
1. Think of one person you have hurt this year. How can you address this wound?
The second asks us to focus on our character:
2. What is one realistic change you can do to make yourself a better person this year?
The third challenges us to look at our professional life:
3. What can you do this year to become a better student, professional, parent or retiree?
The fourth expands our hearts to the greater world:
4. What is your prayer for the world this year?
And the last one invites us to open our souls toward a force or power beyond ourselves:
5. What is one thing you can do to strengthen your relationship with God this year?
(based on Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe by Erica Brown, page 126)
Let’s spend the next 10 days between RH & YK contemplating our answers to these questions with humility—
as we walk the road of righteousness.
Our challenge is to remember to not take the bait when it comes to power-plays, control and dominance.
It’s so alluring,
So easy to succumb to its self-satisfying pull, but it leaves us lonely, disconnected, and keeps us from looking at ourselves.
Instead, look into your Teshuvah Mirror, Carry it with you the next 10 days.
I wish each of us the strength to be honest on our journey. Shannah Tova.