The Torah portion this week, Yitro, is named after Moses’ father-in-law, a man we first met in Chapter Three of Exodus. In the opening narrative in Exodus 18, Yitro asks Moses: What is this thing that you are doing to the people? “Why do you act alone while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” (18:14) In verses 18:17 and 18, Yitro continues by saying: “What you are doing is not right! You will surely wear yourself out and these people as well. The task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.”
This encounter between Moses and his father-in-law precedes the focal point of this week’s Torah portion, the Revelation at Sinai. I hear in it a message for our own time regarding the challenging tension that inherently exists between communal leaders and the communities they lead and govern.
Yitro, in our Torah reading, criticizes Moses for taking total responsibility for communal leadership without even asking the people for a contribution. He teaches his son-in-law the lesson that the best thing for a communal leader to do is to delegate power and share both authority and responsibility.
Yitro’s admonition of Moses sets the stage for the readers to hear the challenging imperative of Exodus 19 — that the Covenant that will be revealed in Exodus 20 will be with the people Israel and each of us. We will take on the responsibilities of Torah and therefore will be entitled to the blessings that emanate from Torah. Over the ages, through the medium of midrash, the rabbis have derived from the narrative of Parshat Yitro that all of us, be we Jews by birth or Jews by choice, were present at Sinai and affirmed with Moses and his generation that “All that Adonai has spoken we will do!” (Exodus 19:8).
The encounter between Yitro and Moses reminds us that self-centeredness can emanate from even the most altruistic of leaders. Neither Moses’ good intentions to be the intermediary between God and the people, nor his willingness to be the arbitrator of disputes between the people, are healthy for him or the people.
What was true for Moses and the biblical editors who chose to include this narrative as an introduction to the Ten Commandments, which are the core of Torah, is, I believe, an accurate description of the challenges and tensions faced by leaders and those whom they govern today, as it has been true or every generation of humanity ever since Sinai.
Our best leaders are not those who do everything for their community or their nation but rather those who inspire us to both help ourselves and to join to help others.
Yitro’s advice to Moses to share power and responsibility is a message that certainly is applicable to contemporary Jewish leaders, both lay and rabbinic; to Jews, and to people of every faith community. As a side note, the Ten Commandments are not only core challenges for Jews and for Christians, who include the Torah as part of their sacred scriptures, but through different texts are at the core of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, as well as other faith communities that have evolved from these religious traditions.
One of the key lessons I take from the overall narrative of the books of Exodus and Numbers is that the building of an ethical, moral, and free society is an easily definable goal, but an awesome and at times seemingly impossible task.
Contemporary leaders, both political and communal, face the same fundamental challenges that confronted Moses. The best of our leaders, similar to Moses, assume their responsibilities reluctantly. Like Moses, our communal leaders and our elected leaders, here in America, in Israel, and around the globe, have to deal with the challenges of both adornment and abhorrence.
Their constituents must recognize that those who lead us are, like each of us, imperfect and flawed.
Yitro’s advice to Moses to find people willing to step forward and take on leadership roles in communal life, given in the 13th century BCE, remains, I believe, the core challenge for us in the 21st century CE. Good people abdicating responsibility, by taking an “it’s not my job” attitude while claiming the right to criticize and kvetch, leave power vacuums that are filled with people who seek leadership only for personal gain. On local, national, and global levels, the 21st century has seen too much power in too many places fall into the hands of people who are more selfish and self-centered than selfless. This year, I hear in the story of Yitro and Moses the need for us both to step forward by giving our time and talent to the community and also to choose political and communal leaders who ask themselves every day the questions posed by one of Moses’ descendants, a sage named Hillel, who taught us, some 2,000 years ago, to ask: “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
On this Shabbat Yitro, I ask myself and each of you not only to commit to the straightforward challenge of Hillel’s teaching from Pirke Avot, but to go a step further and rephrase Hillel’s question and ask: If I try to do it all myself, who will be with me? If I am unwilling to share power and responsibility, what am I?
And then, echoing Hillel’s rhetorical retort: If not now, when?