By: Rabbi Neal Borovitz, Rabbi Emeritus
Temple Avodat Shalom
, River Edge, New Jersey, USA
The Torah portion for this week is called Yitro and is named after Moses’ father-in-law. The high point of this
and the climax of the entire Torah is Exodus 20, which is the conclusion of this week’s portion. However, I believe that the opening narrative in Exodus 18, which we read this year on the triennial cycle of Torah readings that many Liberal congregations practice, has a very salient message to us as 21st century Jews on the issue of leadership. Yitro has brought his daughter and grandsons to meet Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness after their dramatic Exodus from Egypt. After a brief description of the happy reunion, in a manner that is certainly less than tactful, Yitro criticizes Moses’ leadership style and his authoritarian manner of governing the community. In verses 17 and 18 Yitro bluntly criticizes his son-in-law by saying: “What you are doing is not right! You will surely wear yourself out and these people as well. The task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.”
This story, which precedes the focal point of the entire Torah, the Revelation at Sinai, reminds me of a fund-raising story that Rabbi Dick Israel, of blessed memory, a fellow HUC-JIR graduate and one of the great Hillel Rabbis of the mid-20th century and a mentor of mine, used to tell.
A chicken and salmon sit down in a deli to share a meal. The chicken suggests “Lox ‘n’ Eggs”. The salmon responds: “That’s easy for you to suggest; from you the chef only needs a contribution, from me it’s total commitment.”
In our Torah reading, Yitro criticizes Moses for offering total commitment to communal service without even asking the people for a contribution. He teaches his son-in-law the lesson that the best thing for a communal leader to do is to delegate and share authority and responsibility.
Yitro’s admonition of Moses sets the stage for the reader to hear the message when God makes His covenant in this week’s Torah reading, not just with Moses but with “We the People”. Yitro points out that self-centeredness can emanate from even the most altruistic of leaders. Neither Moses’ good intentions to be the intermediary between God and the People, nor his willingness to be the arbitrator of disputes between the people, are healthy for him or the community. As I reflect back upon my rabbinic career I can see that often, I took on a Moses-like approach that is criticized here, by failing to heed the advice of Yitro. Our best leaders are not those who do things for us, but rather those who inspire us to help ourselves and to join together to help others.
Yitro’s advice to Moses to share power and responsibility is a message that is not only applicable to contemporary Jewish leaders, both lay and rabbinic, but to we the people of the world. Democracy works only when we all participate. Abdicating responsibility leaves power vacuums that too often are filled by people who care more about the “me” than the “we”.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the issuance of the Balfour Declaration. A very short note from the British Foreign Secretary to a Jewish member of the British House of Lords.
November 2nd, 1917
Dear Lord Rothschild,
I have much pleasure in conveying to you on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.
His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
Arthur James Balfour
In fact, the issuance of this statement profoundly changed the political map of the Middle East, and gave international legal legitimacy for the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. The whole story of the political battle to establish and build the Jewish State of Israel is a very Yitro-like story. Each time that any one leader, be it the British Jew Chaim Weizmann or the American Jew Louis Brandeis, sought to take total credit and complete control for the Zionist enterprise, there were setbacks. When Jewish leaders over the past century have been willing to work together in partnership, as did the diametrically opposed “little giants”: Prime Minister Menachem Begin and our great leader Rabbi Alexander Schindler, in the 1970s and ‘80s Jewish unity was preserved and Jewish life prevailed. I am sure that 2017 is going to be a year in which there will be challenges to the national rights of the Jewish People affirmed in the incorporation of this Balfour Declaration into the Peace of Paris, ending WWI. I am also certain that the internal battles over the question of who is a Jew, as well as the rights of all Jews to worship and to live in the land of Israel, are going to challenge our Jewish Unity and sense of community.
I began with a teaching from a great non-Jewish Biblical figure. Allow me to conclude this
with a challenge from a post-Biblical Jewish teacher who lived some 1200 years after Moses, a sage named Hillel. In
we are taught in the name of Hillel:
“If I am not for myself who will be for me; If I am only for myself what am I? If not now, when?”
On this Shabbat Yitro I ask myself and each of you to rephrase Hillel’s question and ask of ourselves and of our communal and societal leaders:
If I try to do it all myself who will be with me? If I am unwilling to share power and responsibility, what am I? And then to echo Hillel’s rhetorical retort, if not now when? In an age when totalitarianism is making a political comeback, we all need to remember Yitro’s admonition to Moses.