Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Less focus on control as we seek influence and reciprocity
“He was a man who took God so seriously that he did not need to take himself seriously at all.”
This is how Rabbi Jonathan Sacks described his friend David, a pediatrician, religious Jew, humble, and dedicated to making a better world. Sacks also told of the occasion when David invited Sister Helen to his son’s bar mitzvah. Sister Helen asked what she should wear, to which he responded, “Come in your habit. God will enjoy that.”
Sacks, as regular readers of the Interfaith Insight will likely recognize, has had a significant impact on my own thinking as I engage in interfaith efforts. He was the chief rabbi for his Orthodox community in the United Kingdom, author of many books, articles, and videos. His death at age 72 in November 2020, following a cancer diagnosis just the month before, came as a shock to everyone around the world who had learned so much from him.
As we launched the 2021 Year of Interfaith Healing, I returned to Sacks’ book published 15 years ago, in 2005, “To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility.” One of the chapters addresses the Jewish concept tikkun olam, to repair or heal the world. In that chapter he recounts the story from anthropologist Loren Eisley’s book, “The Star Thrower.” It is about a young person on the beach picking up starfish that have been stranded by the retreating tide and tossing them back in the water. An observer says to him, “Don’t you know there are thousands of starfish on the beach, and you can hardly make a difference?” The young person looks at the starfish in his hand, throws it safely into the waves, and responds, “To this one it makes a difference.”
Healing or repairing the world does not happen all at once or by a single person or single movement. But each act can either help in that effort or make the situation worse. It is the challenge for each of us to act with responsibility. Sacks writes, “Where what I do meets what needs to be done – there is God’s challenge and our task.”
Sacks speaks to us today not only through his previous books, articles, and videos, but also in his weekly “parsha” or Torah portion that he wrote prior to his death, that is currently distributed each week on the website maintained by the Office of Jonathan Sacks. Last week’s parsha titled “Power or Influence?” reflects on Moses’ leadership as he led his people out of Egypt. During the 40 years in the wilderness following the Exodus, he often had to exercise both decision power and leadership through influence. Sacks contrasts the power of a king with the influence of a prophet and notes that Moses played both roles.
When the power of a king is challenged, for example in a coup d’état, it is resisted with force. There can be only one king per generation else the kingdom divides, as was the case following the death of King Solomon when the kingdom was divided. When power is divided it is diminished. Sacks observes that the power of a king ends when the king dies.
Moses as prophet exhibits influence. There can be more than one prophet at the same time and their influence is often greater after their death. Sacks writes, “Power works by division, influence by multiplication. Power, in other words, is a zero-sum game: the more you share, the less you have. Influence is not like this. … When it comes to leadership-as-influence, the more we share the more we have.”
As I read Rabbi Sacks’ parsha and his earlier book, I was reminded of another one of the themes for our Year of Interfaith Healing, namely, the environmental theme of Healing Our Earth. This past week the Wege Foundation sponsored an online talk by Dr. Robin Kimmerer, scientist and member of the Potawatomi Nation who, along with the Odawa and Ojibwe people, formed the Council of the Three Fires, original to this part of Michigan. Over 2,000 people registered for Kimmerer’s inspiring talk, “Healing Relationships with the Natural World.” It is now available through June 11 at https://wegespeakerseries.com/.
Kimmerer challenged us to see the earth through two eyes: the eye of science but also the eye of the traditional values of the indigenous peoples. The gifts of the earth are not resources to be used up, but as our home for which we should be thinking in terms of relationship. The history of dealing with the environment has been one of power and control, but she inspires us to see our natural world in terms of reciprocity.
“What does the earth require of us?” she asks, not just what can we take from the earth. It is another version of living with a win-win approach rather than a zero-sum approach where what we take diminishes the earth, our home. Just as Sacks calls for healing through influence rather than control, Kimmerer calls for living with the earth in ways that humans, animals, plants, water, and earth all benefit and are sustained.
Whether it is our relationship to the earth or our relationships with each other, we must act in ways that lead to win-win. It is not a competition where another’s gain is our loss.
Sacks concludes: “Not all of us have power, but we all have influence. That is why we can each be leaders. The most important forms of leadership come not with position, title, or robes of office, not with prestige and power, but with the willingness to work with others to achieve what we cannot do alone; to speak, to listen, to teach, to learn, to treat other people’s views with respect even if they disagree with us, to explain patiently and cogently why we believe what we believe and why we do what we do; to encourage others, praise their best endeavors and challenge them to do better still.”
Whether it is our approach to the environment or our getting along with those who may look, think, or believe differently from us, let us forgo control and strive for influence and reciprocity. Let’s make it a win-win for all.