Yitro: Leadership for the people

Yitro: Leadership for the people

Rabbi emeritus, Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, Reform

The Torah portion this week is called Yitro and is named after Moses’ father-in-law, also known as Jethro. While the highlight of this parsha and the climax of the entire Torah is the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20 with which it concludes, I believe that the opening narrative in Exodus 18 has a very salient message to we 21st century Jews on the issue of national and communal leadership.

To refresh our memories: The dialogue between Moses and his father-in-law takes place after Yitro has brought his daughter and grandsons to meet Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness following their dramatic Exodus from Egypt. After a brief description of the happy reunion, Yitro, in a manner that is certainly less than tactful, criticizes Moses’ leadership style and his authoritarian manner of governing the community. In verses 17 and 18 Yitro bluntly criticizes his son-in-law 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.”

Yitro criticizes Moses for offering total commitment to communal service without even asking the people for a contribution. He teaches his son-in-law a lesson: that the best thing for a communal leader to do is to delegate and share both authority and responsibility.

Yitro’s admonition of Moses sets the stage for the reader to hear the message later in this week’s Torah reading that God makes His covenant not with Moses but with “We the People.” Yitro points out that self-centeredness can emanate from even the most altruistic of leaders. Neither the good intentions of Moses to be the intermediary between God and the people, nor his willingness to be the arbiter of disputes between the people, are healthy for him or the community. As I reflect back upon my rabbinic career, I can see that often I took on the Moses-like approach that is criticized here by failing to heed the advice of Yitro. Our best leaders are not those who do things for us, but rather those who inspire us to help ourselves and to join together to help others.

Yitro’s advice to Moses to share power and responsibility is a message that is not only applicable to contemporary Jewish leaders, both lay and rabbinic, but to we the people of the world. Democracy works only when we all participate. Abdicating responsibility leaves power vacuums that too often get filled by people who care more about the “me” than the “we.”

“Speaking Truth to Power” happens to be the theme for the North Jersey Board of Rabbis’ Sweet Taste of Torah program on Motzei Shabbat Yitro, (February 3, at The Fair Lawn Jewish Center). It is a Jewish tradition that dates back to our Patriarchs in Genesis, is echoed by Yitro in this week’s Parsha, and through our Prophets and Sages across the ages has been incised into our Jewish communal soul. Over the last century when we Jews have been willing to speak truthfully to each other and to share power and responsibility even with those with whom we disagree, we have accomplished amazing feats. Conversely, when we have allowed our differences to divide us, we too often paid a costly price.

Beginning with the Balfour Declaration issued 100 years ago on November 2, 1917, and continuing with the U.N. Partition Plan approved on November 29, 1947, and culminating on April 19, 2018, when we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of Israel’s Independence, we are blessed this year with multiple anniversaries upon which we can celebrate the rebirth of Jewish Independence. I suggest to you this Shabbat that the whole story of the political battle to establish and build the Jewish State of Israel is a very Yitro-like story. Each time that any one leader, be it the British Jew Chaim Weizmann or the American Jew Louis Brandeis, sought to take total credit and total control for the Zionist enterprise, there were setbacks. When Jewish leaders over the past century have been willing to work together in partnership as did the diametrically opposed Prime Minister Menachem Begin, z”l, and the leader of American Reform Judaism, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, z”l, in the 1970s and 80s, Jewish unity was preserved and Jewish life prevailed.

2017 was a difficult year in diaspora–Israeli relationships. I am sure that 2018 is going to be a year in which there will be new challenges to the national rights of the Jewish People. I am also certain that the internal battles over the question of who is a Jew, as well as the rights of all Jews to worship and to live in the land of Israel, are going to challenge our Jewish unity and sense of community. My question is: How are our leaders going to deal with these challenges?

I began this D’var Torah with a teaching from a great non-Jewish, Biblical figure, Yitro. Allow me to conclude this with a challenge from a post Biblical Jewish teacher, who lived some 1,200 years after Moses, a Sage named Hillel. In Pirke Avot, we are taught in the name of Hillel:

“If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself what am I? If not now, when?”

On this Shabbat Yitro I ask myself and each of you to rephrase Hillel’s question and ask of ourselves and of our communal and societal leaders:

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,  to echo Hillel’s rhetorical retort: “If not now when?” In an age when totalitarianism is making a political comeback, may we all remember Yitro’s admonition to Moses here in this week’s parsha that bears his name.

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