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Lunch at the White House
Mom with a View

Lunch at the White House

The intoxicating allure of power.

by

I always made fun of people who were into celebrities (I recognize that mocking others is an unattractive character trait!).  I couldn’t understand why anyone would line up for hours to get an autograph or perhaps just a glimpse of a movie star.  What difference would it make to their lives?  It all seemed so silly and foolish to me. 

With the same sense of self-righteousness and snobbery, I scorned those who worshipped power and politics, even telling my husband to advise our friend who was offered a job in the White House to turn it down.  Why sacrifice all that family time? It couldn’t possibly be worth it.  (I’m addressing the superficial attraction here; not the potential to make real change in the world.)

And yet, and yet, when that same friend invited us to join him for lunch in the West Wing this week, I jumped at the chance.  It wasn’t even a “twist my arm” moment. We were so there.  And we milked it for all it was worth, rescheduling appointments because we would be “at lunch at the White House”, even shamelessly dropping the information when we requested directions from the hotel staff.  (They were duly unimpressed; they hear it all the time.)

I was a little surprised at myself at how easily I abandoned my previous position.  Or perhaps at how powerful the draw was.  And I’ve been trying to understand it ever since and I think I’m beginning to get a glimpse into what the attraction is and it’s different from the attraction to celebrities.

Why did Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden? How did the serpent seduce her?  He promised her power, the ability to be like God.  That was hard to resist, even for the first woman, even for someone who was on a first-name basis with the Creator of the World.  We want power, the power to create, the power to make a difference.  And in Washington, one may be caught up in the illusion that it is available, in confusion between what’s real power and what’s counterfeit.  

Judaism considers the ability to wield power (in a healthy and meaningful way) as one of life’s highest pleasures. It’s the pleasure of being like God. When we are around people who appear to have this, we feel lifted by association.  We feel the vicarious pleasure and excitement. We start to feel powerful ourselves.  

But we also get trapped in the mistake.  Power is a high level of pleasure – but only if we use it well, if we use it to create, if we use it to connect, if we use it to elevate, if we use it to be like God.  The Torah extols the use of power but not for its own sake and certainly not to satisfy our egos.  With a focus on the appropriate use of power, we can be creative in our ability to give, in our ability to help others, in our ability to make a difference.  

If a trip to the White House is seen as a chance to name drop then it is a foolish ego gratification (made even more foolish by the fact that I don’t work there; I only have a friend who does!).  On the other hand, if it is seen as an opportunity to understand the potential of power and the ways in which it can be used constructively then it is a wonderful opportunity to focus on what it means to use our individual gifts and powers to lift the lives of those around us.  

We didn’t need to eat from the tree that was forbidden to be like God; we just needed to emulate His behavior, to be focused on giving, on the needs of others. If we have the power to be givers, then we have all the power we need. And that is the most exciting rush of all.

December 4, 2016

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Visitor Comments: 1

(1) jim, December 8, 2016 8:45 PM

emuna, remembering your name in case

in case i am ever (hahaha), at the white house! be cool, stay cool!

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