Parshat Yitro

Torah Reading for Week of February 8-February 14, 2009

“The True Meaning of Leadership”

by Rabbi Stephen Robbins
AJRCA Professor of Mystical Thought

The central event in Parshat Yitro is the giving of the Torah at Sinai. There are important preliminaries that prepare the people for this event. The first is Jethro’s (Yitro in Hebrew) conversation with Moses, regarding his judging; “Moses judged the people and they had to wait in line from morning to evening.” Jethro admonished him, “Why do you sit alone with all the people”. Moses responds that the people come to him to seek G-d, meaning that his judgments are divinely inspired. Jethro warns that he will become worn out, as will the people. There is in this interchange a deep psycho spiritual lesson for each of us who become clergy or chaplains. Jethro challenges Moses that he is doing something ‘to’ the people not ‘for’ them; therefore he is doing it for himself.

Rabbi Yitzhak Arama points out that Moses believed he was the only court that the people would accept. Moses explains his actions with the phrase “Davar Ba Eilay” (a declaration comes to me), meaning G-d speaks to me. Here we see the last state of the development of the leader who must learn to relinquish centrality in order to embrace the participation of all the community. Moses was following the example set by the other nations, like Egypt, who depended on a single individual as the source of justice. Moses was trapped by his own history. It was he, alone, upon whom G-d relied to supplant Pharoah, becoming the leader. Exodus 7:1, “See I have set you as a Elohim over Pharoah”. The word Elohim refers both to G-d and judge. So Moses replaced Pharoah. His transition from being the dominant figure, to the shared leadership with Aaron and the judges happens at this moment. Moses was used to being indispensable and so behaved as such. It is Yitro who teaches him that true authority comes in humility. Leadership is not pushing or pulling people forward, but of beckoning them onward while standing with them.

Moses could be accused of having a ‘big Ego.’ His failure is not in Ego, but, rather, in not trusting others to share the responsibility and his desire to pour out all that he knows and can do upon others. This Parshah is named after Jethro, because he is the key that makes the shift in Moses. His humility is demonstrated in his ability to listen and withdraw (Tzimtzum) like G-d, before creation. All of us, myself included, bare a responsibility for this failure of leadership and its impact. While thinking we are giving more, we are actually taking more and giving less. Our task as clergy is to learn, like Moses, to balance our outpouring to others receiving. We must listen to Jethro’s voice, “You become worn out, as well as the people that are with you. The matter is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone.” 18.18

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