Words are tricky. We tend to think common words carry the same meaning for everyone; that the word itself IS the meaning, rather than a vehicle carrying unique nuances and understandings for each user. We forget that for each word, each concept, each person has their own image for what that word and concept means. I say cake and I see chocolate 2-layer, someone else sees a white-icing birthday cake with candles. Power is one of these words.
Power is a popular word; it gets thrown about a lot these days. We say things like “he’s the most powerful person in the company”; “information is power”; “that was a powerful presentation”; and we promise things will deliver “powerful results”. But what is your definition of power? What does power, in these and other instances, really mean? As a suitcase, “power” warrants a bit of unpacking.
Dictionary.com tells us that “power” means: 1. Ability to do or act; capability of accomplishing or doing something. 2. Political or national strength. 3. Strength, might, force. These definitions characterize most recent approaches to politics: We tend to vote for the candidate we deem most powerful from a position of force, we create militaries to forcefully buttress ourselves against others we deem potentially more powerful than us, and in these ways we are thus often led to vote for male candidates who carry the aspects of physical strength and might.
To look at it from a whole, “Power among human beings is generally defined in terms of one’s ability to destroy. The most powerful persons or nations are those who can cause the greatest damage or lay waste the greatest numbers, who can subdue, imprison, or take away the freedom of people (1).”
That’s a sobering thought. Fortunately, there are, however, other definitions of power.
The Amida is perhaps THE central prayer in Jewish service. More than 2000 years old, it is recited several times a week. It contains all the basic components of prayer: praising God, personal and communal needs, and thanking God. The sections that praise God are three, and the second one focuses solely on God’s power. It goes like this:
Thy might is eternal, O Lord,
Who revives the dead,
Powerful in saving,
Who makes the wind to blow and the rain to fall (said only in winter),
Who sustains the living with loving kindness,
Who revives the dead with great mercy,
Who supports the falling, heals the sick, frees the captive,
And keeps faith with the dead;
Who is like Thee, Almighty, and who resembles Thee,
O King who can bring death and give life,
And can make salvation blossom forth.
And faithful art Thou to revive the dead.
Blessed art Thou, Lord, who makes the dead live. (2)
If you read this with dreamer’s eyes you noticed a pattern of “reviving the dead”. Six times this theme is repeated, and beyond that it is echoed in phrases like ‘healing the sick’, ‘saving’, ‘blossom forth’, even in “freeing the captive” (who are but ‘dead men’), and “supporting the falling”. We know that God’s power is unlimited, and has been expressed in numerous variety of fashions, beginning with the very dramatic creation of existence itself. We’ve seen God split the Red Sea, and cause plagues in Egypt and other miracles. However, rather than capitalize on these points, the ancient Rabbis wrote this very specific and concise conceptualization of God’s power. Rather than destroying, damaging, subduing, or imprisoning, power is looked at here as the ability to give life. “God’s powers are here defined exclusively in terms of His acts of ‘loving kindness’ (hesed), by helping man when he is helpless (3).”
If the first dictionary definition of power is the ability to do something, I wonder what would happen if we changed our values about what that something is. We can use our power to destroy others – stepping over them in our competitive race to the top, humiliating them with words that cause them to stumble and fall – or we can use our power to reach out a hand and help, to devise inclusive solutions, to feed someone. As countries we can suppress others – taking away rights to speech or access to resources or even someone’s life – or we can adopt a policy of peace and look for ways to foster cooperation.
Words are tricky. They trick us into thinking that present uses of them are “how things are”, written in stone and impossible to change. However, a closer look, a little ‘unpacking’, and we can find other perspectives. Perhaps the most radical thing we can do is challenge established definitions, provide alternative values, and show that more than one image exists for each word. The Amida’s perspective on power gives us an example – we can choose a definition of power that is based on destruction or one based on creation; power that is a companion of death, or one that walks alongside life.
All change begins with the individual. What’s in your “power” suitcase?
1. Donin, R.H.H. (1980). To Pray as a Jew: A Guide to the Prayer Book and the Synagogue Service. Basic Books, a division of Harper Collins Publishers.
2. Donin, R.H.H. (1980), pp. 78 – 79. To Pray as a Jew: A Guide to the Prayer Book and the Synagogue Service. Basic Books, a division of Harper Collins Publishers.
3. Donin, R.H.H. (1980), p. 9. To Pray as a Jew: A Guide to the Prayer Book and the Synagogue Service. Basic Books, a division of Harper Collins Publishers.