Power Sharing

The impacts of grassroots organizations and the division of power.

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Taking Responsibility

Citizens of democratic nations must challenge political systems that marginalize and persecute their own people. Yet many of us today inadvertently support the consolidation of power in the hands of a few leaders. The humility of Moses and the question of Miriam and Aaron grow dim in our consciousness.

We glorify the actions of presidents, prime-ministers, and armies, even though the vast majority of national life always occurs at the grassroots level. The media reinforces this fallacy by disproportionately publicizing the actions of government leaders over the actions of community leaders. But effective NGOs and community-based organizations around the world deserve our attention and support. They are strongholds and mouthpieces for the power of the people.

In places like Burma, where it appears that the government holds all of the power, grassroots NGOs are effecting tremendous change. One example is Palaung Women's Organization (PWO), which empowers women and communities of the Palaung ethnic minority. In one PWO-run project, young women participate in a six-month course in democracy, human rights, and women’s rights in which they receive training in English, computer use, and group-facilitation skills.

Learning about and supporting grassroots organizations like PWO is essential for anyone who genuinely cares about global issues. It is a critical way of ensuring that power is shared between a people and its government.

Parashat B'ha'alotkha begins with a description of the menorah, an image that can serve as a model for the just distribution of power in a society. The structure of the menorah eloquently symbolizes the ideal political structure of a nation. It is “gold from base to petal” (Numbers 8:4) and made from one block of material (Sh'mot 25:31). God instructs, “The seven lamps shall illuminate the face of the menorah,” not only the high branches (Numbers 8:2).

While all parts of the menorah are fundamentally one, so are all parts of the nation. Just as the lamps should not overshadow the menorah’s body, leaders should not overshadow the masses. Like the menorah, let governments and citizens around the world kindle a balanced light of power and humility.

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Sam Shonkoff

Sam Berrin Shonkoff is currently the Jewish student life coordinator at Stanford Hillel. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies from Brown University and has also studied in Jerusalem at Hebrew University, Pardes Institute and The Conservative Yeshiva.