There is, in Pirke Avot,1 the teaching of a rabbi named Ben Bag Bag. He said:
Hafoch bah, vahafoch bah, d'chola bah, "Turn it and turn it, over and over, for everything is in it."
The "it" to which he referred is, of course, Torah. You cannot assume that once you have encountered a portion of Torah that you know it, any more than you can assume that once you have met a person, you know everything about him or her. When we get reacquainted with old friends, we learn new things and discover different aspects of their characters. I think of this week's parashah as one of those old friends, acknowledging that each time we read it we learn something new.
When we encounter biblical characters, we react to them the way one might react to characters in a play or a novel. Some are likeable, some are strange, some are beyond our experience, and there are some with whom we can identify. We experience that flash of recognition in an interaction, a relationship, an expression. These g'dolim, these "great ancestors," become real people to us. I am drawn to the beginning of this parashah, because I find that flash of recognition and I identify with Moshe Rabbeinu, (Moses our teacher), as he receives unsolicited advice from his father-in-law.
Many in our Reform Movement knew—or knew of—my father-in-law, Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus, of blessed memory. His birthday often fell in the week of Parashat Yitro, and I recall speaking about this portion on the occasion of his 65th birthday in 1986 at Union Temple of Brooklyn, where he served for many years. He also chaired the liturgy committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) during the publication of a generation of prayer books, taught at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and was the CCAR's director of rabbinic placement. His colleagues and students and congregants recall his dry humor and his vast scholarship and erudition. I pray that his teaching and his advice stay with all of his students. His memory continues to be a blessing.
Yitro (Jethro, in English) was the father of Zipporah, Moses's wife. We are told that he was a priest of Midian, and the Torah quotes him offering a blessing, using the name YHVH, the Israelite name for God. He "rejoiced over all the kindness that the Eternal had shown Israel . . . 'Blessed be the Eternal (YHVH),' Jethro said, 'who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians' " (Exodus 18:9-10). When Yitro arrives to visit the Israelite encampment in the wilderness, he is welcomed by Moses with due respect. They spend the evening catching up on the latest news and then company arrives. Yitro makes an offering and they sit down for dinner. The next morning, Moses goes to the office; Yitro observes his son-in-law at work and offers a few choice bits of wisdom.
We do not know what the training was for the Midianite priesthood, but Yitro's analysis of the situation and the remedies he advised suggest that perhaps he earned an MBA or an advanced degree in public policy. In his book, The Nursing Father: Moses as a Political Leader,2 Aaron Wildavsky wrote:
Jethro's advice to Moses, which he implements, comprises what in our time have become classical principles of public administration. There is "management by exception" under which routine matters are covered by standard operating procedures, leaving the difficult cases for special attention by higher authority.
There are job qualifications established in the selection criteria set out by Moses: employees should be capable, God-fearing, truthful, honest, unswayed by prospects of material gain. Specialization was there before Moses' time as indicated by the numerous references to craftsmen. Division of government labor, however, Moses owes to Jethro in the persons of the captains of tens, hundreds, and thousands. . . . (W)e could say that by following these principles of administration, Moses was able to devote his time planning, directing and coordinating the activities of those under his command.
The vision of Moses as a political administrator does not exactly fit the Rabbis' classic image of Moshe Rabbeinu, but perhaps that gives us an opportunity to broaden our image of both rabbis and political administrators. The Rabbis of antiquity called Moses rabbeinu, "our rabbi, our teacher," as a term of love and respect. He is the quintessential giver of law and leader of the people. Perhaps they called him that because they also wanted to be legal authorities and popular leaders. But leadership is a tricky thing. It is easy to get too caught up in all the details, easy to take oneself too seriously, easy to get burned out. No one person is capable of doing everything. One of my colleagues likes to say that when he visits the cemetery, he regularly sees the graves of those who thought they were indispensable.
When Yitro advises Moses to delegate some of his responsibilities, he says: V'atah techezeh mikol ha-am, "You shall also seek out, from among all the people . . ." (Exodus 18:21). But the word "techezeh" usually refers to a vision or prophecy, indicating that the selection process requires more than mere administrative expertise. Rashi clarifies this with his addition: b'ruach hakodesh she-alecha, "with the holy spirit that is upon you" (Rashi on Exodus 18:21). So we see that there are requirements that go beyond an MBA if one is truly to lead the people. Moses needs discernment, he needs organizational structure, he needs to delegate and share the burden, but most of all, he needs to be aware of his own ruach hakodesh, the "holy spirit" that is within him.
We, too, in our daily work, in our activities on behalf of our congregations and communities, in our families and households, in our activities to improve the world, need to remember that we are engaged in sacred tasks, that we are imbued with ruach hakodesh, that spirit that connects us to God and Torah and Israel. And thus inspired and strengthened, we, too, can stand again and again at Sinai.
1. Pirke Avot 5:22 in Leonard Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky, eds., trans., Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics (NY: UAHC Press, 1993), p. 89
2. Aaron Wildavsky, The Nursing Father: Moses as a Political Leader (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1984)
Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus is rabbi emerita of B'nai Yehuda Beth Sholom in Homewood, Illinois. She is past-president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
The Ten Commandments were given on Mt. Sinai. Our Sages wondered why Sinai was chosen for this wondrous event. After all, it was not the highest mountain. In fact, when compared to other peaks, it was the lowest and most insignificant—and that is why God chose it (see Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 5a).
Rabbi Dreyfus reminds us that Yitro (Jethro) offered sound advice to his son-in-law when recommending that Moses share the burden of leadership by delegating some of his responsibilities to others in the community. Moses wisely accepted this advice. I like to think he was able to do so because, like Sinai itself, Moses was humble, a quality that Torah says he possessed in great abundance (Numbers 12:3).
Rarely do we celebrate those who are humble. Instead we praise those who are successful, regardless of how they achieved their success; we admire those who have arrived, no matter how they managed to do it. What seems to count in our society is what we have—not who we are or how we act. Humility is a lost virtue.
I own many books, and among the ones I cherish most are those given to me by my parents. One such volume is called Prayer, Humility and Compassion by Samuel H. Dresner. Opening my copy reveals this inscription: "For Sally from Mother and Dad on your graduation from the Beth Israel High School Class, May 22, 1964—One more step toward your goal." As you can see, I had supportive parents who encouraged my dreams. Unfortunately, my father, z"l, did not live to see me ordained. He died a few years after giving me this book. But whenever I pick it up, I remember that my father wanted to teach me humility.
One of my favorite stories in the book is about a busy merchant who asked the rabbi of Lekhowitz how to attain humility. While they were speaking, the clock struck the hour. The rabbi said that nothing humbles us more than the striking of a clock, for then we know that another hour of our life has passed, and we should pause and reflect: "What have I done in this hour and how have I served God?"1 Surely the mystery of time and eternity has the power to keep us humble. A mountain shames a molehill until both are humbled by the stars.2
1. Samuel H. Dresner, Prayer, Humility and Compassion (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1957), p. 134
2. Sidney Greenberg, Say Yes to Life (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1982), p. 21
Sally J. Priesand is Rabbi Emerita of Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, New Jersey.
Yitro, Exodus 18:1–20:23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 508–565; Revised Edition, pp. 468–506;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 407–426