Parashat Yitro contains one of my favorite lessons in the Torah, and it’s definitely not a glamorous one. In Parashat Yitro, we meet Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro (or, in Hebrew, Yitro). He is the father of Tzipporah, and a Midianite (a non-Israelite religion) priest. Yet after hearing about how the Israelites were treated by Pharoah, he chooses to bring his family to meet Moses and join them on their journey.
Initially I am struck by his loving acceptance of his extended family, despite their different religious practices. Though his traditions are different, and though he is a leader in his own tradition, his love for and connection to family is the value that drives his decisions. Furthermore, as we will soon see, he manages to toe the line between overstepping and offering unwelcome advice and providing essential support to his family.
We meet the Israelites in a moment of challenge. (Don’t we always? — but then again, if there wasn’t something to be learned from the challenge, our ancestors probably wouldn’t have written the story in the Torah.) The Israelites are finally out of Egypt, but they are struggling to organize themselves: freedom, in other words, is complicated. Whenever two people, or two groups, have a dispute or a question for God, they bring it to Moses who hears both sides and renders a decision. And since there are thousands of people who have left Egypt, this job of listening and rendering judgment is significant.
Moses is struggling to manage it all when Jethro steps in. After a day of observing Moses’ behavior, Jethro asks Moses, “What are you doing? Why are you managing this burden on your own?” When Moses explains his role as judge, Jethro replies simply: “Lo tov hadavar asher atah oseh” – The thing that you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself, and these people out. You cannot do this work alone.” The commentator Rashi expands: “If you do this, you will wither like a leaf.”
What happens next is stunning: Moses does not respond with incredulity, or turn away. When his father-in-law offers to help, and suggests that Moses train a group of leaders to support him, Moses follows his advice. Moses is known as the most humble of our leaders for a reason—perhaps for this very moment. Moses is able to receive this unsolicited advice because there is a true benefit in following it—both for him, and for his community. Not only will he be able to more effectively help more people, he also sets up a community in which wisdom is not monopolized by only one person, but is shared.
This past week, at the HSP Parent-Teacher Cocktail Party, I took a moment to look around the room and take it all in: the teachers and administrators and parents all together. I thought about what it took to create that evening: from the planning by the fabulous Parent Organization volunteers, to everyone who chose to be there in person, to the teachers and administrators and JCP community leaders who make HSP run. None of us can help create the vibrant, joyful, resilient future of Judaism on our own. Our community certainly looks different from Moses’ group of (all male) leaders, helping adjudicate and decide what’s next, but in many ways when we reach out to each other, we are continuing this legacy.