The Question of Agency: Tapping into our Hidden Power

In weeks like this one, with the climate crisis and political crises in full view, I struggle with the question of agency. Do I have any power at all to effect change? If I cannot control the "big" things that are happening in real time all around me, do my actions matter? It's easy to become dispirited and believe that we don't have much power.

What a week! I returned from winter vacation travels with my family to find the continent of Australia on fire; news of an assassination, retaliatory strikes, and fears of war brewing between the US and Iran; word of a mysterious plane crash over Tehran; and more. Without a doubt, we are living through a turbulent chapter that history books will be written about someday! As I have said before, these headlines are fear-inducing for me, not least of which because I -- like so many in the Kavana community -- am accustomed to being able to exercise a great deal of control in my life (yes, I'm a "Type A" personality!). In weeks like this one, with the climate crisis and political crises in full view, I struggle with the question of agency. Do I have any power at all to effect change? If I cannot control the "big" things that are happening in real time all around me, do my actions matter? It's easy to become dispirited and believe that we don't have much power.

I am so fortunate that part of the rhythm of my work as a rabbi is regular Torah study with colleagues. This week, in my rabbinic study group, teacher Beth Huppin brought us a text that really resonated for me and speaks directly to this question of agency. Rabbi Avraham Bornsztain of Sochaczew (a 19th century, Polish Chasidic rabbi) is commenting on last week's Torah portion, Vayiggash (and this commentary was recently translated by Rabbi Jonathan Slater and shared as part of his weekly Institute for Jewish Spirituality teaching). The Torah text he's talking about is the narrative from Genesis where Joseph has been sold down to Egypt and risen to power there; now at a time of famine, the rest of Jacob's sons travel down to Egypt, and Benjamin (the youngest sibling and Joseph's only full-brother) has been framed and detained. It is Judah (brother #4) who now steps up and takes responsibility for his younger brother Benjamin, pledging to their father Jacob to return the boy safely. R. Avraham of Sochaczew wants to know: How is it possible that even in this instance of great duress, Judah was able to take responsibility and step up to act? It is in this context that he writes these powerful lines:

"The answer is that we are endowed with hidden power, of which even we ourselves are ignorant. Should we engage these forces, we are sometimes able to do more than we ever imagined."

In this week, this is precisely the Torah I needed to hear, and I share it because perhaps this notion -- that we are endowed with more power than we tend to know -- will be a helpful one for you too.  

How do we access our power, especially at times of duress? In this, Judah can be a model for us. Faced with an overwhelmingly difficult situation, in the midst of a political quagmire with factors far beyond his control, Judah makes the radical decision to act in a meaningful but simple way. He pledges to help a single person, his brother, and in doing so, effects a small change that ultimately changes his family's fate and the trajectory of history.

But where do we begin? As we consider how each of us might do the same, I draw on other rich texts from our Jewish tradition. One that comes to mind is a Talmudic passage (from BT Shabbat 127a) recited as a prelude to daily morning prayers. It states: "These are the deeds which yield immediate fruit and continue to yield fruit in time to come: honoring parents; doing deeds of lovingkindness; attending the house of study punctually morning and evening; providing hospitality; visiting the sick; helping the needy bride; attending the dead; probing the meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and another."

The mitzvot on this list don't sound like answers to pageant questions... none are about working to achieve "world peace" or other grand visions. Instead, these mitzvot are small, tangible acts of kindness and commitment in the interpersonal and communal realm. However, each item on the list supports the notion of human agency, affirming that by "doing the right thing" in small ways but consistently, as part of our daily practice, we can channel kindness, compassion, justice, peace, and even divinity into the world. This is a profound concept.

This week, with little fanfare, some members of the Kavana community showed up to fulfill one of the mitzvot on the list ("attending the dead"), helping to make minyan at a small graveside funeral of an elderly Jewish woman so that her family members could say kaddish. I want to express my heartfelt gratitude R, C, T, M, H, and C for showing up... this was the epitome of a mitzvah of agency!

Now, I invite you to take a look at the list the Talmud gives and use it as inspiration, as you consider what you might do this week to engage the power you didn't even know you had. Perhaps you'll choose to honor your parent (the mitzvah applies whether they are living or deceased), to support someone's learning, to check in on a neighbor, to attend Shabbat services at Kavana to help us make the minyan, or to do another "deed of loving kindness" (buy coffee for a stranger? write a note of appreciation to someone who has had an impact on your life?). Whatever you choose, in picking some tangible act of goodness, you will exercise agency and tap into your hidden power. The Talmud promises that such mitzvot yield fruit both immediately (as they make a positive impact in our society) and in a "time-to-come" way (i.e. in ways we can't even begin to imagine).  

This is the week to remember that each of us has hidden power -- super-powers -- that we don't always recognize. If we choose to act, radiating kindness and light to those around us even through small acts, we can indeed "do more than we ever imagined."