Saving Ourselves from Burnout: The Importance of Delegating

Yitro, Exodus 18:1–20:23

D'Var Torah By: Tema Smith

In this parashah, Moses is reunited with his father-in-law Yitro, who meets him in the wilderness and brings Moses's wife and sons with him. Moses tells Yitro about everything that has come to pass since he left them to return to Egypt to free the Israelites. Yitro is awed; he praises God, burns offerings, and shares a meal with the elders of the Israelite community.

The next day, Yitro finds Moses acting as a magistrate and suggests he find others to resolve minor disputes. This would leave Moses free to communicate directly with God and settle only major disputes.

Parashat Yitro provides us with another important lesson about leadership: it is too big of a burden for one person. Relying on a single leader is not beneficial to the community at large. Until this point, Moses has been the sole leader of the Israelites. In Yitro, we see a significant shift after Moses accepts the wise counsel of his father-in-law. Yitro sees the Israelite community from a fresh perspective when he meets them and observes their daily life. It doesn't take long for him to caution Moses that a leader cannot meet the needs of a community alone without burning out: "The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone" (Exodus 18:17-18).

Moses heeds this advice and shifts his role away from being the Israelites' sole leader to being the interlocutor between the Israelites and God. He focuses on teaching morals, laws, and practices while arbitrating only the most significant disputes. The people of Israel now have a new leadership model that does not just save Moses from burnout, but also, in Yitro's words, allows the Israelites to return home unwearied - or, as it says in the Hebrew, "b'shalom" - which can also be translated as "in peace."

Moving to this shared model of leadership marks an important moment in the development of the Israelites' polity, pushing them further from their years of subjugation as enslaved people in Egypt. With other capable leaders responding to the everyday needs of the Israelites, Moses can dedicate himself to talking directly to God and sharing God's words with the Israelites. It is only after Moses learns to share governance with trusted people in the community that he receives the Ten Commandments.

Parashat Yitro teaches us significant lessons about leadership. First, we learn that leaders sometimes need an outside observer to point out what they may not be able to see when immersed in their day-to-day responsibilities. Secondly, leading alone leads to burn out, which is bad both for leaders and for those who follow them. Finally, when leaders share responsibilities with those who are capable, they can dedicate themselves to the tasks they are uniquely positioned to perform.

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