In Parashat Korach, Moses’ cousin, Korach leads a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, demanding, “All the community are holy … Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3). Often, Korach’s actions are interpreted to be the jealous behavior of one who sees himself as entitled to power. But what if his behavior reflects something different — a feeling of helplessness and a fear of being disenfranchised?
Our haftarah this week (I Samuel 11:14-18:32) finds the prophet Samuel too facing feelings of helplessness. In his time, the people desired a king, but Samuel did not want to appoint a king over Israel. He feared people would think the king held the ultimate power over them, and they would lose their connection to God as the Ultimate Power. Samuel felt both powerless to say no to the people’s request, and powerless over their inevitable distancing from God if he were to say yes.
We all have moments when we feel powerless. Sometimes we feel powerless to act and sometimes we feel powerless over the consequences of our actions. Whether because of an accident, a mistake, an illness, a negative encounter with another person, or simply overfilling our plates with tasks, the more powerless we feel, the more our stress levels tend to escalate.
Perhaps Samuel used a simple strategy to harness his power and lower his stress. Maybe he asked himself three fundamental questions:
What can I do?
What am I willing to do?
What am I not willing to do?
Samuel was a prophet, military leader, and the last of the judges. He had a lot of power as a leader. However, he also recognized his power was finite. To use the gendered language of the Bible, if the people were to turn away from the King of Kings in favor of an earthly ruler, Samuel would be powerless to prevent the harm that would come from their breaching their covenant. If he were not to appoint a king, he was powerless over the reaction of the Israelites.
In Deuteronomy Moses instructs, “If, after you have entered the land that the Eternal One has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled it, you decide, ‘I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,’ you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Eternal your God.” (Deuteronomy 17:14-15). This approval of the Israelites having a king is clear. So is God’s statement to Samuel, “Listen to the people … It is not you that they have rejected; it is Me they have rejected as their king,” (I Samuel 8:7). Despite Samuel’s wishes, it is time for him to help the people establish a king.
When we break Samuel’s situation down to the three questions and answer them from a perspective I imagine he might have had, we can see something like this:
What can I do? I can say “no,” and the people may protest like the followers of Korach. If they reject my judgment they may abandon not only me as the last judge, but also God. How will there be any continuation of God’s teachings or the fulfillment of the covenant if I sever their hope? I can say “yes,” and there will be a king with the danger of them going astray, but also with the hope of them unifying under a just ruler approved by God.
What am I willing to do? I am willing to listen to God, who instructed me “Listen to the people … It is not you they have rejected; it is Me that they have rejected as their king.” (I Samuel 8:7) I am willing to try. If the people refuse to listen to God, at least I can fulfill God’s words to me. I may not like it, but I am willing to do it.
What am I not willing to do? I am not willing to appoint the king and walk away. I will remind the people of their commitment to God. I will strive to set an example and be a voice of faith.
These are the same questions that apply to us today, when we feel powerless.
Sometimes when we are overwhelmed with feelings of powerlessness we get sucked into the responses of the followers of Korach — venting, anger, yelling, all because we don’t think we have power (Numbers 16:3; 12-14).
But we can respond like Samuel, and recognize that although power is finite, in every situation we do still have the power of choice. The first question, “What can I do,” allows us to lay out everything that really is within the realm of possibility. Rather than rail against what we cannot do, we can channel our thoughts into all the potential ways we can respond.
When we look at the list of possibilities and realize there are some responses we are willing to employ, we further our grasp of a situation. When we eliminate the items we are not willing to act upon, we exercise the choice to accept when a situation is out of our control and institute free will to the extent that God has given it to us over our lives.
Perhaps one of the most satisfying aspects of Samuel’s role in making Saul the king of Israel is the grand way in which he ensures that the anointing take place. Once Samuel decides that he can and he will, he puts himself “all in” for celebrating the task and overseeing the transition of the tribes into a nation. Let this also be a lesson for us in moving forward from stress or powerlessness to power and effective change.
Rabbi Vered L. Harris, RJE is the spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Israel in Oklahoma City, OK. She appreciates how our ancient texts continue to speak to our modern experiences.