Friday, February 17, 2017

Yitro: When Leaders Need Suggestions, Reminders, and Even Rebuke

There is something very powerful going on in this week's Torah portion. I could, of course, be referring to the Ten Commandments, as they are indeed presented for the very first time in our parashah.
Without even looking at the wording of the commandments themselves, there is truly something powerful about the very notion of a stone tablet, carved by God (or by the Utterance of God), inscribed with the essential rules that we all must follow. And yet, what I wanted to focus on in this blog post is only tangentially related to the words on that tablet. You see, this IS a very important Torah portion - primarily because of those laws - but what I find REALLY remarkable is that the parashah is named after a non-Jewish, idolatrous High Priest.

Moses, we are told, is married to Tziporah, who is not an Israelite (a pretty early example of intermarriage, to be sure!). Her father, Yitro, comes to visit Moses in the desert, and this most central of readings is,
incredibly, named after Yitro. Now, the Torah does not come with paragraph breaks, or any indications of where one Torah portion begins and another ends. So a group of rabbinic leaders, early in our history, created these different parshiot, and THEY chose to name this incredibly significant portion after Yitro. Why? First of all, it is a reminder that we are not alone in this world. We often allow ourselves to be too insular in our thinking, and we live in siloed communities filled with like-minded people who look and act the way we do. But there is much we can learn from other people and other cultures, as this week's reading does attest.

I also believe there's more going on here. Moses' and Yitro's interactions are fascinating. In Exodus, chapter 18, we see the following scene: "Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening" (v. 13). Yitro comes out to watch what's happening, and is shocked to
discover that Moses is deciding over EVERY issue, dispute, gripe, and concern that the Israelites have. Yitro offers two powerful observations; we might even call them rebukes. First, he says, "The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well" (v. 14). What he's saying is, not only will you burn yourself out, but it's actually a huge disservice to the people as well, because you can't be all things to all people. It isn't fair to you... and it CERTAINLY isn't fair to them! Not even Moses - selected directly by God - was able to handle that kind of work load. It's a crucial reminder to us all that no leader can solve everyone's problems all the time; we need to learn to delegate responsibility to others, and expect that behavior from our leaders as well.

Yitro then goes on to urge Moses to create a judicial system. Essentially, he says to Moses: appoint judges for major issues and other judges for minor issues, and you yourself should only decide the most significant and challenging issues. One might imagine that Moses created his earlier system because he didn't think anyone else could do it as well as he could, either because no one could be trusted or because only he was
appointed by God. So accepting the rulings of these other courts was a leap of faith, but a necessary one to create a functional society. Without that trust, the whole system could break down, and Moses would be left with chaos and unrest. But it's especially interesting that this suggestion doesn't come from God, or even from someone within the system. Yitro, a foreigner with an outside perspective, is the one whose contribution brings stability and order. The Ten Commandments are absolutely the foundation of our Jewish system of mitzvot. And while they were initially carved in stone, they also MUST BE part of a living, breathing tradition that grows and evolves. Sometimes even our leaders can't see that, so we need to offer them reminders - both from within the community and without. You might even say the whole system depends on it.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Djampa on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Lawrie Cate on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image "Leap of Faith" courtesy of Jasonanaggie on Wikimedia Commons

No comments:

Post a Comment