By: Rabbi Danny Burkeman, Rabbi at the
in Port Washington, New York, USA.
He is a former Board member of the
World Union for Progressive Judaism
Empowering the People
When I think back to my time in
(the Reform Jewish Youth movement in Britain) I find it hard to believe just how much responsibility I was given at a very young age. At 21 years-old I was responsible for leading 40 teenagers around Israel, at 22 I was the head of a summer camp for over 100 people, and at 23 I was working in the office with responsibility for summer camps, Israel Tours, and the movement budget. Now as I look back at my time in RSY-Netzer I realize just how important those opportunities were for preparing me to assume a leadership role within the Jewish community.
One of the core principles of our movement was empowerment. RSY-Netzer was always looking for ways to allow the young people to take responsibility for their movement and to assume leadership positions. In so many areas of life teenagers are told that they are too young for this or too young for that; in our youth movements (and I know it is true in all of the
(branches)) teenagers are told “yes you can.” They are given both the tools and opportunities to be leaders, something which is good for them, good for the movement, and good for the future of the Jewish community.
At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion it is not clear that the word empowerment is part of Moses’ vocabulary. He is the leader of the Israelites, and while he works in cooperation with his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam, it is unclear that anyone else has assumed any leadership role within the community.
When Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, goes to watch him work we read that: “Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening.” I imagine Moses sitting in his tent/office, with a line of Israelites out the door and around the camp waiting for him to answer their questions or adjudicate their cases. Considering how many Israelites made the journey out of Egypt we can imagine that this line would have put the queues for a new iPhone to shame.
When Yitro sees this he asks: “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while the people stand about you from morning until evening?” What I really appreciate in Yitro’s question is that he says
– to the people, recognizing that while it may be arduous on Moses to have to adjudicate every case, it is really the people who are suffering. Moses does this to the people because he forces them to wait in line for answers, but also because he doesn’t allow them to assume any responsibility for leadership in the community.
Yitro warns Moses that “you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well”. He therefore suggests a system with “chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens” with responsibility for judging the smaller cases, and allowing for a system where the major disputes would rise up the chain to Moses. In this way Yitro ensured that Moses could fulfil his responsibilities, he allowed for a hierarchy of judges, and most importantly he set up a system to empower the people to take responsibility for themselves. Breaking them down into tens ensured that people would really be empowered throughout the community.
As Moses’ father-in-law we can understand that Yitro may have had a vested interest in making sure that he had time to spend with his wife and children. But his contribution was good for the entire Israelite community. He recognized, in the same way as RSY-Netzer, that it is vitally important to empower people to assume positions of responsibility.
But perhaps most significantly Yitro provided the final step necessary for the people to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. It is no coincidence that it is only after Yitro’s intervention that the people are finally ready to stand together as one community and receive Torah. To receive Torah they didn’t just need to be free, they needed to be empowered to say “yes” and accept God’s covenant as their own.
About the Author
is weekly Torah commentary “Two Minutes of Torah” is available on
and through the
Prior to his tenure at the Community Synagogue, he was a Rabbi at the
West London Synagogue
of British Jews. He is a
Rabbis Without Borders
fellow and was a member of the inaugural cohort of the
of New York’s Rabbinic Fellowship for Visionary Leaders. He is married to Micol and is the proud father of Gabriella and Benjamin.
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