Shabbat candles: 5:05 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 18:1-20:23
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-6 (Ashkenaz);
Havdalah: 6:09 p.m.
In this week’s Torah reading, we learn that Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, traveled from his home in the Land of Midian into the Sinai Desert, bringing Moshe’s wife, Zipporah, and their two sons to be reunited with him. The details of why Zipporah and their sons had been “sent away” by Moshe are unclear.
Curiously enough, the Torah’s narrative focuses on the interaction of Moshe and Yitro, rather than on Moshe’s reunion with his own family. Indeed, the text mentions Moshe going out to greet his father-in-law with no mention of welcoming his own wife and children, perhaps because the story that transpires has ramifications for the entire community, while his reunion with his wife and children was a more personal event.
Yitro, a priest in Midian, hears from his son-in-law the events of the Exodus from Egypt. He acknowledges the greatness of the God of the Hebrews, even going so far as to offer sacrifices. And then we get to the core of the story:
Yitro sees people coming before Moshe from morning to night seeking Godly guidance, including matters to be adjudicated. Yitro springs into action, first identifying a problem — that this way of working will lead to burnout, both by Moshe and by the people he seeks to serve. He prescribes a course of action: appointment and training of judges and sharing authority with them. The Torah narrates the implementation of the plan, and implies that the new system was evaluated as being successful. With that, Yitro’s work of reuniting the family and his recommendations to Moshe are done and he returns to Midian.
What do we learn?
Yitro is an example of what a good consultant does: analyze the problem, suggest resources and solutions, evaluate its success and ultimately, move on. And while perhaps the modern practice of consulting doesn’t directly owe its founding to the Torah, Yitro shares many characteristics of today’s consultant.
Leaders don’t burn out alone. When a leader burns out, so does the community s/he leads. Communities have good reason to take care of their leaders.
Good ideas are good ideas, whether they emanate from one’s own community or from another. In our Torah portion, Moshe leads the Jewish people to adopt best practices recommended by Yitro, whom the Torah describes earlier as the priest of another faith community.
Ultimately, the take-away from the incident is about diffusion of leadership. From this story on, leadership and authority in the Jewish community will not be concentrated in one person and one person only. This diffusion of leadership and authority has become even more pronounced in our generation, along with an increasing diffusion of knowledge.
Where a generation ago, only a small percentage of people had access to broad amounts of information, and high level Jewish knowledge was limited to the upper echelons, knowledge is now at everyone’s fingertips. The Internet and its vast storehouses of information have evened the playing field. In the Jewish world, both publishers and technologies have put previously inaccessible information within reach of everyone. The result is a desire on the part of increasing numbers of Jews to set their own path, individually and communally. They want their paths to be informed by authoritative, knowledgeable Jewish guides, not dictated by Jewish authorities.
In this way, Yitro seems very contemporary. He argues for decentralization and for empowering a greater number of people. Instead of one person serving as God’s spokesperson, he advocates spreading that role. What we can see is a change in the role of the rabbi from that of authority figure to that of a facilitator of Jewish learning, living and decision making — just a logical extension of the process Yitro introduces in the parasha.
Rabbi Arnold D. Samlan is the founder of Jewish Connectivity, a Jewish life coaching and consulting practice. He serves on staff at The Jewish Education Project and blogs as The Notorious R.A.V.