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Yitro: Learning How To Lead

Vayishma Yitro, cohen Midian, choten Moshe, et kol asher asah Elohim l’Moshe ul’Yisrael amo, ki hotzi YHVH et Yisrael miMitzrayim.

Jethro, priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and Israel, how YHVH had brought Israel out from Egypt. (Exodus 18:1)

In this week’s Torah portion, the Children of Israel encamp at Mount Sinai and receive the Ten Commandments. What could be more central to the Torah than this very moment of communion between YHVH and the people that YHVH has liberated? One might find it odd, therefore, that the name of this portion is Yitro, “Jethro”. Why is it not named “Mount Sinai”, or some other title that would draw us to the most sublime moment in the Torah?

I love asking this kind of question about the Torah. By following these byways Jewish Torah commentators unearth hidden insights from our sacred narrative. So let us ask today, what was so important about Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, that he merits the portion containing the Ten Commandments to be named in his honor?

One can argue that without Jethro’s presence in Moses’ life, Moses would never have been able to lead the Children of Israel to freedom.

Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s palace. In my telling, Moses was a Prince of Egypt, and he saw Pharaoh as his father figure and mentor. Moses watched how Pharaoh treated those under his control. Moses absorbed the understanding that the leader’s word is law, and that the lives of his underlings are at the mercy of that word. Moses always possessed a powerful and innate sense of justice, which will in fact guide him towards his destiny, but Moses never learned compassion. What does a Pharaoh’s prince need of compassion? Are not slaves and taskmasters simply instruments of the King’s designs? Do they even have individual identities or names? Who cares?

As a young man Moses sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. Moses instinctively sides with the oppressed, and strikes the taskmaster, killing him. Moses righteous anger is aflame within him, but he does not know yet how to temper it. He has murdered a man. Moses flees to the wilderness.

As Moses arrives thirsty and tired to an oasis, Jethro’s seven daughters come to the well to draw water. Other shepherds arrive to drive the daughters away from the well, and Moses once again rises to the defense of the weak. He drives off the shepherds and then waters the daughters’ flocks. Touched by Moses’ deed, Jethro invites him in for a meal. Moses stays, marries Jethro’s daughter Tziporah, and becomes a shepherd of Jethro’s flocks.

The Prince of Egypt is now a shepherd in the wilderness. The midrash tells us that Jethro taught him how to shepherd the flock. A shepherd needed to know each of the animals under his care. He needed to make sure none of them got separated or lost from the flock. He needed to know how to birth the babies, carry them in his arms, and guard over them and watch them grow. Jethro taught the Prince of Egypt, who up to now had only been served by others in his life, how to be of service, with selflessness and compassion. One might say that Jethro “re-parented” Moses, and gave Moses a new model to follow. Jethro, priest of Midian, is Moses’ mentor in how to be a mentsch.

With this training, Moses is tending Jethro’s flock in the far reaches of the wilderness. The midrash tells us that a kid wandered away from the flock. Moses turned aside to retrieve the kid, and that is when he saw a bush, burning but not consumed. He hears his call to tell Pharaoh to let My people go. As I understand this midrash, by chasing after the lost kid Moses demonstrated that he had fully internalized the compassion that he would need to be a true leader. In that moment, Moses was ready to hear and understand the call to go liberate the slaves in Egypt. And so YHVH appeared in the burning bush. Perhaps the burning bush was a manifestation of Moses own consciousness, a light bulb in his own soul: “Oh, now I understand. My passion for justice can and must be balanced with my compassion for others. I now must go back home and rectify the wrongs I saw there.” With that irrevocable but terrifying decision, Moses went back to Jethro and told him that he must return to Egypt. Vayomer Yitro l’Moshe, “Lech L’shalom – “And Jethro said to Moses, ‘Go in peace’” (Ex. 4:18). Shalom might here be understood in its meaning of shleymut, wholeness. Jethro might be saying, “You came to me with great power and righteousness already instilled in your being. Now that you have learned the lessons of caring for the least among us, you are a whole person. Take that wholeness with you back to your kin, and serve them well. And take the shepherd’s staff with you – it will remind you how to lead your flock.”

Now, in this week’s portion, Moses has succeeded in his mission, and has brought the Children of Israel out of slavery and back into the wilderness. Jethro comes to greet him, and also reunites Moses with Tziporah and their sons. Moses bows low, and then excitedly recounts for Jethro everything that has happened. Jethro is overwhelmed by all the goodness God has shown, and gives thanks to YHVH.

But it appears that there are still some additional critical lessons that Moses needs to learn about leadership, and he welcomes Jethro’s guidance. The next day, as was his practice, Moses sat to adjudicate all of the questions and disputes that the Israelites would bring before him. But the line went around the block. Moses heard arguments and passed judgments all day long, and still more people waited.

But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone?…The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well…You cannot do this alone. Now listen to me, I will give you counsel, and God be with you!” (Ex. 18:14-19)

Jethro then instructs Moses to choose people of substance and good character to preside over lower courts and adjudicate over most cases. Moses will, as it were, represent the supreme court, and will bring any cases that have not been resolved before God and seek those judgments. And Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said (Ex. 18:24).

Jethro gave Moses another crucial lesson in leadership. Human beings are not sheep. Unlike with sheep, being a shepherd of human beings means not just keeping them safe, not just having compassion and caring, but empowering them to become leaders as well. A great leader inspires and encourages others to fulfill their own potential, not merely to follow.

Only now is Moses ready to lead the people of Israel to Mount Sinai, so that they might each hear the voice of God that Moses encountered when he chased after that lost kid from his flock. Moses now understands his task as their leader. In the forty years to come, the Children of Israel will falter and backslide, Moses will many times lose his temper, but the Children of Israel will one day be ready go on without Moses, and enter the Promised Land. Without Jethro, none of this might ever have been possible. Maybe that is why this Torah portion is named after him.

May we all remember with gratitude all the patient and wise mentors and teachers who have guided each of us – and if they are around to hear it, let’s let them know the difference they have made in our lives!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan