D’var Torah: Parshat Vaera – Power, Authority and Helping People Get Unstuck
Often, a conflict between people causes a power struggle in which one person tries to assert authority and power over the other. Often, these fights get ugly and people get hurt. Additionally, once people disagree, they become entrenched in their positions and find it hard to get unstuck. Both of these problems occurred in the battle between God and Pharaoh, with Moshe attempting to facilitate a less destructive outcome.
The story of the battle between Pharaoh and God has long troubled me. Why does Pharaoh remain so stubborn when the stakes so great? The easy answer is that Pharaoh was evil and refused to see God’s miracles and power. That may be true, but it isn’t instructive to the vast majority of us who are neither evil nor saints.
Pharaoh is a god to his people, with absolute power. No one has ever checked his power.
God wants to deliver the Israelites from slavery. God wants to make a statement that will be remembered forever so that Jews will adhere to the laws and moral codes of Judaism.
This isn’t a good recipe for a negotiated outcome. God and Pharaoh engage in a power struggle and God prevails. While Pharaoh certainly bears responsibility for this, it also is clear that Pharaoh gets stuck: he engages, loses a round, re-ups and loses again until he is utterly broken.
At camp, relationships can flounder when people rely on authority to obtain the outcomes they want. When dealing with staff and campers, it is better to rely on influence, rather than on authority. The best way to influence people to act in appropriate ways is to build relationships with them so they know you care and understand their perspectives.
In my work with our Nivonim campers to prepare them to be camp leaders, I explain to them that authority goes only so far and is not the most effective way to lead. One example I might share is this: while I am the person with the most authority in camp, when I tell people to pick up their trash, they often continue to litter – so I find it more effective to lead by example by picking up the trash that I see.
Sometimes a camper may start acting in a way that negatively impacts a relationship with a counselor or friend. They might even be a little embarrassed by their behavior. Yet their pride is hurt; they are stuck and don’t know how to navigate toward a resolution. One of our key jobs at camp is to help people get unstuck. Sometimes this means finding a face-saving way for them to back out of the situation. Other times it just means reassuring them that we care about them and like them, even though they may have done something wrong.
When I read the story of the struggle between God and Pharaoh, I see Moshe as the one who is trying to navigate the situation so it doesn’t end with the slaying of Egypt’s first born. Raised in a palace but also familiar with life as a fugitive, Moshe seems empathetic to Pharaoh and the Egyptians while advocating for the Israelites’ freedom. The problem is that God’s desire to deliver the people through a show of power that will be remembered forever directly conflicts with Pharaoh’s desire to keep his power as a god to his people. I don’t know if this conflict was avoidable, but I believe we need to view this as the exception to the rule, and that we should try to help people find their way by leading through example and helping people get unstuck.