Parashat Yitro – Exodus 18:1-20:23

By David L. Cohen

Jethro (Yitro), Moshe’s Father in Law plays a singular and intriguing role in the Jewish tradition and in the biblical Narrative.  Moses is THE teacher.  He is THE Rabbi.  God eventually hands down the law to Moses to be delivered to the Jewish people.  Yet, through Jethro, Moses also learns more about what it means to be a leader than he ever learned being a prince of Egypt.  Moses clearly had the instincts that made him ready for his role.  He saw injustice.  He acted on his beliefs.  He was observant and patient, and though not a great speaker, was a commanding presence.  Yet the faults or shortcomings that Jethro points out in this portion are classic skills leaders must possess.  So even though Moses had come the closest to experiencing God than any other patriarch, he still had much to learn.  In fact, many of these shortcomings we learn about become the core of later rebellions against Moses’s leadership.  He learns from Jethro, but maybe everything he learned, he was not able to put into practice right away.  Like many of us, Moses was still a work in progress – as a person and a leader.

The skills that Jethro discusses with Moses are leadership skills like delegation, patience, and trust.  Jethro tells Moses he must find respectful people that can take on some of the mantle of leadership – or else Moses will get burnt out and the people will be frustrated by the slow pace of decisions and action.  He must give more people a say so they do not feel stifled.  Individually, Moses reacted quickly when he saw a slave being beaten.  As a leader, decisions took longer and action was delayed.  And by keeping power in one person, other opinions were not heard.  These, as Jethro accurately predicted, were the seeds of discontent.

Two aspects of Jethro’s role are profound in this story.  First, Jethro was not a Hebrew.  He was not of the Israelite tribes but still knew of their God and held respect for the people and their traditions.  In a week where we are about to honor the work of Martin Luther King, we can easily relate to a story about a non-Jew who held beliefs that resonate strongly with Jews.  In this week’s Religious School eNews you will see links to stories about the commonalities of the Exodus narrative and the Civil Rights movement in the United States (click HERE for one titled Heschel and King: Living the Exodus Legacy).

But a second connection is in the actions both Moses and Jethro take toward each other – which may be the ultimate foundation for leadership.  Humility.  Upon hearing of Moshe’s arrival, Jethro, the elder, goes out to Moses to meet him in deference and modesty.  He takes the first step.  Then, upon their meeting, Moses bows down to Jethro.  Moses – the Prince of Egypt, leader of the tribes of Israel, conqueror of the Egyptian Army – bows down and kisses his feet.

There is much richness in this week’s Parashat Yitro and much relevance for the modern world and our own actions towards others.  It is no wonder it is one of the most widely used Torah portions used by leaders, educators and business professionals around the world.

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