Parshat Yitro

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick, ’15

Parshat Yitro

In our appropriately named Torah portion this week, Yitro (Jethro), we are introduced to Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, himself a Midianite high priest. His daughter, Zipporah, is Moses’ wife, remember, but, together with her two sons, she has been left for a long time to reside with her Dad in safety while Moses saved the enslaved Israelites from their Egyptian taskmasters.


Like a good Dad-in-law, Jethro brings his daughter and two young grandsons with him from Midian to the desert to see how Moses is faring now that the Exodus is over, and he finds Moses very busy indeed administering the needs of the Israelites in the wilderness.


I love Jethro. In his experienced estimation, Moses is doing far too much in his leadership role, wearing himself out and growing harried in the task. So, in a most memorable text on leadership, and based on his own experience as an esteemed leader in Midian, Jethro very gently gives his harried son-in-law some needed advice on leadership.


“Spread the work around; let others share in it,” he instructs Moses, who seems overwhelmed by trying to settle disputes while, at the same time, interpreting the “laws and teachings of God” to the Hebrew people.


The following biblical passage is a superb interpretation of shared leadership:


“The thing you are doing is not right,” Jethro explains; “You will surely wear yourself out and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go, and the practices they are to follow.


“You shall also seek out from among the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set over these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden for you. If you do this—and so God commands you—you will be able to bear up; and all the people too will go home unwearied” (Exodus 18: 17-23).


Fortunately, a tired Moses is open to learning from Jethro that leadership does not have to be exercised alone. Alone is NOT GOOD. As my favorite commentator, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, points out, God only uses the words “not good” in one other place in the Torah, in the phrase, “it is not good (lo tov) for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18).[1]


And when Jethro departs to go home, he leaves his daughter and two grandsons with Moses. A man (or woman) needs to make time for their family.


After Jethro’s sage advice on leadership in the parsha, the text takes us by surprise. As the serious conversation about temporal government shifts to temporal government shifts to moral government on a higher plane, we find Aseret HaDevarim, the Ten Utterances. In English, we more commonly call them The Ten Commandments. Since the time of Moses, these utterances have been the highest form of government for the Jewish people.

[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Justice or Peace” (Yitro 5777), Covenant and Conversation, 13 Feb., 2017.