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Lessons in Leadership - Yitro

This week we read parshat Yitro which begins with the story of Jethro teaching an important lesson to Moses. Jethro was a Midianite priest, and the father of Zipporah who was Moses wife-- making Jethro the father-in-law of Moses.

So the story goes… When Jethro heard the good news that Adonai had freed Moses and the Israelite people from bondage in Egypt, he set out from Midian to take his daughter Zipporah and her children to reunite with Moses in the wilderness. When they arrived, Moses told Jethro everything that Adonai had done to the Pharaoh and his army, and of the hardships that the Israelites experienced... and that ultimately Adonai had led them all to safety. Jethro, the Midianite priest, presented a burnt offering to Adonai for delivering Moses and his people to safety, and was then joined by the elders of Israel for a feast.

The following day, Moses stood all day long and acted as the judge among all the people, sharing the teachings and the laws of Adonai, and making judgments on disputes. When Jethro saw the weight of the task that Moses had taken on, he immediately stepped in to offer Moses a lesson in leadership. Jethro warned Moses that if continued to lead in that way he would wear himself out. The text literally reads -- “the task is too heavy for you; you can not do it alone.” (Ex. 18:18)

So, Jethro advised Moses to search among his people and gave him criteria that can basically be viewed as job requirements. Moses was to seek “strong and trustworthy men, who feared Adonai and loathed those who sought unjust gain.” (Ex 18:21)

He told moses to appoint those men as leaders of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens-- creating what can be compared to a modern system of courts, where Moses would only judge over disputes of great importance. Moses took the advice of Jethro, his father-in-law, then sent him on his way back to Midian.

The advice given to Moses by Jethro was perhaps one of the most important lessons Moses received. -- Now if you remember, Moses did not want to be a leader in the beginning. Earlier in the book of Exodus, when Adonai was instructing Moses to become leader of the Israelites, Moses pushed back claiming he was unfit for the role. Moses was modest, but Adonai saw greatness in him. Moses went on to be the great leader that he was, helping the Israelites escape from the bondage of Egypt.

What he was not quite prepared for... was what was going to come next -- HaNatan Torah -- the giving of Torah, and the revelation of God to the all of the Israelites at Sinai. This, is the reason given to us by Midrashic rabbis as to why Jethro enters this story when he does. Moses received this important advice just before the big reveal, which allowed him to put in place a system that would help manage the chaos that was sure to arise with so many people waiting in anticipation.

When we read Torah, we are often presented with stories that don’t seem to follow the main story line, they are are inserted in a way that seems haphazard. However, Midrashic rabbis believed that everything written in the Torah was put there for a reason, and Jethro being placed so closely to the revelation at Sinai is no exception.

In the Midrash, Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, the rabbis expound upon part of the first verse of Exodus 18 -- “Jethro, priest of Midian, Moses’s father-in-law heard.” Then the rabbis pose their own question: “What did he hear?” Rabbi Eleazar of Modim responds to the question claiming that Jethro had heard of the giving of Torah, and that is why he came, possibly alluding to the fact that Moses was in need leadership advice before this revelation occured.

Jethro’s lesson was imperative for Moses to be successful, and it can be seen as equally important for us today. Each of us should consider this lesson when we are in positions of leadership, and the roles in which we serve to support our leaders. It is also important that we remember and teach our children this value of learning from everyone and being humble when receiving wisdom. Communities, business, homes, and political offices have the ability to function as systems with integrity, shared responsibility, and a continued desire to learn more and be better. Perfection is not reality, and letting go of the constant reach for perfection allows us to learn and grow without judgment.

As Martin Luther King Junior said:

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle, as well as the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

Shabbat Shalom

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