The Quiet Message: How Parashat Yitro Teaches Us to Lead
Between two massive thrusts of the history of the Jewish people, between Exodus and Sinai, stands a little old man named Jethro.
We know the exodus, we know this cornerstone of our story, the story of the Jewish people. God, through Moses and Aaron freed the Jewish people of the treacherous 400 years of slavery. The Red Sea split, and Miriam’s song was sung throughout the people with such joy and happiness.
We know the story of the Ten Commandments, this literal communication between God and the Jewish people. Some would say it is the event that shaped modern Jewish life, and the struggles between those who live it. God’s booming voice flew through the strong and terrifying thunderstorm, and then, the Jewish people had their laws to live by.
But before the law came, while in the wilderness, disputes began to arise between the people. From things as little as theft to as large as murder, there was deep unrest. This week’s portion, Parashat Yitro, tells us that Moses sat, from morning to evening, and acted as magistrate for every single one of these cases. At the time, the Torah tells us, there were about 600,000 Israelites. That’s a lot of cases. The people stood in line day after day waiting to reach Moses to resolve their dispute.
Torah commentator Gersonides talks of this when he says that Moses’ judging was not only inefficient, but it was interrupting his relationship with God, as well as the people’s relationship to God.
Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, himself a priest of Midian, was a wise man. He saw what Moses was doing, and he saw how it was affecting the people, whose disputes threatened to explode into anarchy. At the same time, he recognized the incredible blessings and tremendous opportunity God had given the Jewish people, and he recognized the tremendous leader that was Moses, his son-in-law. Jethro then had the chutzpah to tell Moses that he could not do it alone, that he had to reach out to fair and God-fearing Israelites to help him judge, for if he did not share that power and that burden, neither he nor the people would survive.
So, what is this story of Jethro? It is the calm, the eye of the storm between the two most significant features of the metamorphosis of the Jewish slaves into the Jewish People. Through love and wisdom, this father-in-law, this Jethro, taught Moses to be able to listen to the people, and through humility, to let the people help him lead them.
What is a leader? Being a part of NFTY, the Reform Jewish youth movement, has shown me that a leader can be anyone. Some leaders are girls, some are boys, some are small and some are big. Some are black, and some are white. But true leaders are not known by their appearance, they are not known by their class or their skin color or their importance. Leaders are known by their character, the strength within them which allows humility, and leads to the courage and skill to make change.
There's a wonderful story from the television series West Wing in which the U.S. president’s chief of staff tells a coworker a story of humility. It goes like this:
There’s a man walking down the street when he falls in a hole with walls so steep he can’t get out. A doctor walks by, and the man yells, “Excuse me doctor, I’m down in a hole, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a priest walks by and the man yells, “Father, I’m down in a hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes a prayer, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a friend walks by – “Hey, it’s me, can you help me out?” – and the friend jumps in the hole. The man says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both stuck down here!” And the friend says “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
It was Jethro who jumped down in that hole, and the man he jumps in to help is no longer trapped, but rather freed by Jethro’s love. The formerly trapped man’s perspective is reborn from imprisonment to freedom. In Yitro, Jethro’s love and wisdom opened Moses’ ear to the message that a leader is never separated from his people. And Moses was humble enough to understand that sharing the power and burden of judging was a sign of strength – not of weakness – that led to change for the good.
As leaders and as change-makers, we can get so caught up in what we are pursuing individually that we forget that the real strength of leadership comes from the love that leads to listening, sharing, working together, and realizing that what we will accomplish together is greater than anything we can ever do alone.
Every day – every single day – we – you and I – can create positive change. We are the man or the woman in the hole, and we are the friend who jumps in. Leadership is both the courage to help, and the humility to be helped – and the wisdom, as we know through NFTY, that we go forward together.
This d’var Torah is the winning entry in the Wendy Blickstein Memorial D’var Torah Competition, which recognizes achievements in d’var Torah writing on a specific theme. This year’s theme was leadership and authenticity as they relate to Parashat Yitro. The second-place entry was written by Lauren Bayne and the third-place entry by Zoe Rosenberg.