How can we make the most of our power – Rabbi Miriam Berger

Ki Thavo

Sermon 1st September 2018

You only get one chance to do it. One opportunity to walk out like MP Frank Field, one opportunity to definitively and unequivocally speak out against the leader of the opposition like Rabbi Sacks has, one opportunity to say we are speaking out and jumping ship. But then what? Once they’ve played their hand, had their column inches do they have any power to change the status quo or do they use their power in the act and then that’s it?

The opposite could be seen as those who appear to have the least power: the Jewish press tell us CST have stepped in to offer security to Jewish delegates at the labour annual conference. It may appear a lack of power but are they, despite their fears ensuring they are, as someone once sung, keeping themselves in the “room where it happens”, a longer lasting power than those who use their power to make the momentary statement? We weigh up these kind of power plays every time we encounter conflict.  Do I go with it, let them do it their way or do I make a stand, say that cannot be done in my name.

Power is often defined only in negative terms, and as a form of domination, but it can also be a positive force for individual and collective capacity to act for change. Lisa VeneKlasen and Valerie Miller in A New Weave of Power (2002, page 55) describe four ‘expressions of power”’ which have been helpful to me at moments this summer where I have watched issues play out in global politics and in our own community politics and been astounded by a misuse of power and where people can find their own power.  However we can also see these categories of power marking out the journey that Moses goes on when leading the children of Israel and we can learn from his career, as within our Torah reading this week, we see him reaching the end.

Power Over

Vene Klases and Miller explain this as the most commonly recognized form of power, ‘power over’, has many negative associations for people, such as repression, force, coercion, discrimination, corruption, and abuse. Power is seen as a win-lose kind of relationship. Having power involves taking it from someone else, and then, using it to dominate and prevent others from gaining it. In politics, those who control resources and decision making have power over those without. When people are denied access to important resources like land, healthcare, and jobs ‘power over’ perpetuates inequality, injustice and poverty. In the absence of alternative models and relationships, people repeat the ‘power over’ pattern in their personal relationships, communities and institutions. This is also true of people who come from a marginalized or ‘powerless’ group. When they gain power in leadership positions, they sometimes ‘imitate the oppressor.’ For this reason, advocates cannot expect that the experience of being excluded prepares people to become democratic leaders. New forms of leadership and decision-making must be explicitly defined, taught, and rewarded in order to promote more democratic forms of power.

We often use ‘power over’ when there is an age differential but when we teach our children and young adults that those older than them take power in this way we simply set up a new generation to wield power negatively when they can.

This ‘power over’ is where Moses starts out in Exodus he uses God’s signs and wonders plagues and parting seas to demonstrate his (or more accurately God’s) power over the people. It leads to years of wilderness wandering filled with moaning and attempted mutinies.  How much more toxic is this type of leadership when the negativity is clouded in a closeted hiding behind the true source of power, in this case God, but in our world bigger organisations or infrastructure that seems too unwieldy to negotiate with.

Perhaps therefore one response is to gain power with.

Power With

‘Power with’ has to do with finding common ground among different interests and building collective strength. Based on mutual support, solidarity and collaboration, power with multiplies individual talents and knowledge. ‘Power with’ can help build bridges across different interests to transform or reduce social conflict and promote equitable relations. Advocacy groups seek allies and build coalitions drawing on the notion of ‘power with’.

It’s when Moses moves into the ‘power with’ phase that he seems most in control. He shares his own power with Aaron and Miriam yet brings the Israelites all into a shared enterprise with the building of the tabernacle. Everyone is empowered by the community endeavour. Often those who take power over others speak dogmatically as if their truth is the only one but when those with less power find the others who are keeping a low profile and not speaking out because their nuanced stance is so much harder to articulate than the hard hitting dogma of those with power over which is spewed back, the swell in numbers and the reassurance of others agreeing with you makes ‘power with’ all the better.  ‘Power with’ involves finding those who are not exerting their power and showing them they have it and how to use it.

Power To

‘Power to’ refers to the unique potential of every person to shape his or her life and world. When based on mutual support, it opens up the possibilities of joint action, or ‘power with’. Citizen education and leadership development for advocacy are based on the belief that each individual has the power to make a difference.

Surely this is the power Moses finds by spelling out the dream by having them taste the grapes that await them in the Promised Land. He creates the understanding they are all part of making it happen. If we all felt we had the power to make the synagogue our synagogue, Israel the Jewish state it has the potential to be, the UK to be the country we need it to be, we would find our way to play our part.  Yet ultimately all these positive forces of power rely on one further power – our ‘power within’.

Power Within

‘Power within’ has to do with a person’s sense of self-worth and self-knowledge; it includes an ability to recognize individual differences while respecting others. ‘Power within’ is the capacity to imagine and have hope; it affirms the common human search for dignity and fulfilment. Many grassroots efforts use individual story telling and reflection to help people affirm personal worth and recognize their ‘power to’ and ‘power within’.

What we read this morning was a small section of the whole book of Deuteronomy where Moses is helping to make the Israelites understand their own ‘power within’. Their power is no longer reliant on his, they have to see the power to be in control of their own destiny and make it happen. The Deuteronomic call is to move the people from living by having the power enforced over them to them taking control of their own destiny, settling the land because they believe in the power to by understanding they have the power within.

When we care about something we have to be part of the discussion and share our passions with those we can take the power with.  The High Holy Days often paint the picture of a God rebuking us for our behaviour because God has the power over us but the sound of the shofar will truly call us to account only when we allow it to ask us if the life we are leading is going to speak for us positively and urge us to find the power within to ensure in the year ahead our actions, our lives will speak for us all as individuals and as a community.


May the life I lead, speak for me
May the life I lead, speak for me
When I get to the end of my road
And I lay down my heavy load
May the life I lead speak for me

May the stories I tell, speak for me….

May the change I make, speak for me…..