The American and Canadian federal elections were held in autumn, and the Israel elections to choose a new government have just concluded. With the races for president and prime minister so hotly contested in all three countries, there has been a great deal of discussion about the necessary qualities and characteristics of a good leader. For the most part, we look for traits that reflect our own viewpoint of the world. We ask ourselves, Whose views most closely resemble our own? or Which candidate is more likely to bring about real and lasting peace in the Middle East? Our discussions, however, tend to focus on issues rather than on actual leadership characteristics.
The Torah portion for this week, Yitro, teaches us that we must look beyond the superficial qualities when it comes to choosing a good leader. It helps us understand that there are certain criteria for leadership that transcend political, ethnic, and socioeconomic boundaries. Parashat Yitro enables us to make a distinction between the characteristics that make a great leader and those that make only a good leader. Ultimately, these qualities enable leaders to create meaningful relationships with those around them so that together they can work for the betterment of all.
Yitro provides us with two models of excellent leaders: Jethro, the Midianite priest who is also Moses' father-in-law, and Moses. Jethro is an example of a wise and seasoned leader. He is an impartial observer who is willing to share his knowledge, understanding, and wisdom with Moses. Moses is still in the first stages of his career as the leader of the Jewish people. He is a reluctant leader who ascended to his position only at God's insistence. Moses is humble: His ego does not get in the way. He is an excellent example of a leader who is able to listen to and learn from others. One of his great strengths is that he listens carefully to Jethro's wise advice and does not hesitate to integrate and incorporate that advice into the manner in which he leads.
From Exodus 18:1-27 we can extrapolate an outline of a training manual for leadership development, which we can use in all aspects of our lives: personal, religious, political, and professional. Jethro's behavior and actions show us that the following are crucial traits for a great leader:
- Seek your constituents where they are. (Exodus 18:1-6)
- Show care and concern for the well-being of others. (Exodus 18:7)
- Celebrate the accomplishments of others. (Exodus 18:9-12)
- Offer constructive criticism in a way that can be understood. (Exodus 18:13-23)
- In a nonjudgmental manner, give advice on how to improve things or help devise a plan for such action. (Exodus 18:19-23)
- Empower leadership (and encourage growth) in others by sharing the responsibilities. (Exodus 18:13-18; 21-23)
- Remember to delegate responsibility and authority wisely. (Exodus 18:21-22) Choose those who are:
- Believers in God (crucial for religious leaders, both lay and professional)
- Representative of the whole population
Moses' behavior and response to Jethro exemplify the following traits:
- Sharing one's accomplishments with those who care. (Exodus 18:8)
- Being open to, listening to, and learning from constructive criticism. (Exodus 18:24-26)
- Not hesitating to implement change when necessary. (Exodus 18:24-26)
- Being humble
Parashat Yitro reminds us that when we choose leaders, we must question more than their stances on political issues. We must ask, Do they have the necessary qualities to work with others to make this world a better place? Yitro also provides us with excellent models for creating relationships, which will enable each of us to be leaders in our everyday lives vis-à-vis our families, our colleagues, and our community. With Jethro and Moses as our guides, we will be able to lead one another to the Promised Land.
At the time of this writing in 2001, Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel was the executive director of the UAHC Canadian Council for Reform Judaism.
In the Bronx shtetl in which I grew up, being Jewish was what you were. We weren't totally observant, but we accepted without question the traditions of our people: On Shabbat and the holidays my father davened inshul and my mother cooked. My brother took lessons and became a bar mitzvah, and I learned from my mother how to light the candles and make a kugel. It was only as I grew older and became more of a feminist that I began to question those roles. By the time my second daughter was born and I had become a Jewish educator, I was firmly ensconced in Reform Judaism. But I had another problem: How could I reconcile my love and respect for my Jewish heritage with my disappointment in our tradition regarding its treatment of women?
In Parashat Yitro we read: "And the Eternal said to Moses, 'Go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes.'? Moses came down from the mountain to the people and warned the people to stay pure, and they washed their clothes. And he said to the people, 'Be ready for the third day: Do not go near a woman.'" (Exodus 19:10,14-15) What's going on here? Perhaps Moses misinterpreted or misspoke God's words when he warned the people not to go near a woman. Therefore, Moses was a chauvinist, but that's another story. Or, we can just agree that the Torah was written by human beings, most likely men (despite Harold Bloom and The Book of J). Therefore, all this seeming exclusion of women from Revelation can be attributed to people who were only reflecting the attitudes of their generation. Or, most scary of all, Moses was reporting what God really wanted him to say, even though God didn't use the exact same words that Moses did!
According to Judith S. Antonelli in her book, In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah(Jason Aronson, Inc., 1995), there is another entirely different possibility, one that I like best of all. It goes as follows: There were actually two different meetings about the Revelation. While Moses was speaking to the men and telling them not to go near the women, Miriam was speaking to the women and telling them not to go near the men. And why was it necessary for men and women to be instructed separately? Says Antonelli, "Thus, like crossing the Red Sea, receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai was an extremely intense spiritual experience at which men and women were separate." Later on she adds, "Not only the experiences of the sexes differed, but each individual's encounter with God varied according to his or her personal capacity."
To me, this is a more than satisfactory conclusion. I have no trouble with God speaking and relating separately to all of us, as men and women and as individuals. As long as we are all allowed to assume our place in the story of the Jewish people, with Miriam alongside Moses and Aaron rather than following a step behind, my concerns are eased.
Questions for Discussion
- Do you think women are justified in feeling that they are "second-class" people in traditional Judaism?
- Do you agree with Antonelli's interpretation of the above-cited passage?
- Do you think that it was necessary for men and women to receive separate instructions?
At the time of this writing in 2001, Sandy Schlanger, RJE, was the director of education at Temple Sinai in Summit, NJ.
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