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Parashat Yitro: Lessons in Leadership 101

By Sara Sless

I was honored and humbled when, a while back, I was invited to write a d’var Torah (a commentary on the weekly Torah portion). Immediately, I thought I would choose this week’s reading, Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23). I was drawn to this parashah not because it includes one of the most important and well-known lessons, the Ten Commandments, nor because it’s the shortest in the Book of Exodus, but rather for far more sentimental reasons.

It was my father’s bar mitzvah portion.

I never heard my father read his portion in synagogue; even though we were regulars there, he didn’t read Torah. To be frank, we never even discussed the portion either—or what it was like for him to celebrate his bar mitzvah in 1935 in the small Jewish community of Cork, Ireland, where he grew up. So, I was happy to have an excuse to delve into what Parashat Yitro is all about.

This Torah portion relates in a most dramatic way the giving of the Ten Commandments: “Now Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire; and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.” (Exodus 19:18) The 1956 movie “The Ten Commandments,” with Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner, offers one (very) dated idea of the setting!

But if the Torah portion contains such magnificent content in the Ten Commandments, the very backbone of Jewish law, of universal law, why is it named Yitro?

In a commentary on this week’s portion, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, wrote:

“Consider also, the fact that the title of our own parsha this week, which contains the Ten Commandments as well as the most significant event in all of Jewish history, the covenant at Sinai, carries the name of a non-Jew.”

To try to make sense of the naming of this portion, let’s go to its beginning. The Torah portion opens with Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, arriving to the wilderness at the foot of the Mountain of God, where Moses is encamped with the Israelites. Yitro brings with him his daughter, Moses’ wife, Tziporah, and their two children, Eliezer and Gershom. On arrival, Yitro, who is, in fact, a Midianite (pagan) priest, is greeted warmly and is invited to eat with Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel, before God.

The next day, Yitro observes Moses as he ministers and counsels his people who come for judgment on various conflicts. “When they have a matter, it cometh unto me; and I judge between a man and his neighbor, and I make them know the statutes of God, and God’s laws.” Exodus 18:16)

Observing these exchanges, Yitro says to his son-in-law, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. (Exodus 18:18) He then goes about advising Moses how to set up a judicial system, appointing trustworthy men to judge the many cases and bringing only the major issues to Moses. As MK Benny Gantz notes in his commentary on Yitro, it is at this point that Yitro distinguishes himself as the world’s first organizational consultant.

Here are just a few lessons we can glean from Yitro and his encounter with Moses—lessons that are more relevant now than ever, in both our private lives and in our work in the JCC Movement.

Offer respect and hospitality to the other. Although Yitro is not of the Jewish faith, Moses welcomes him warmly and bestows upon him great honor. “And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt-offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law before God. (Exodus 18:12)

Do not criticize without also suggesting a possible improvement. So often, we observe something we deem isn’t quite right, or, in our mind, utterly wrong. Yitro teaches us how important it is to observe a situation and suggest a concrete solution to ease the burden.

It’s important to share and unburden others. Especially for people in leadership roles, the responsibility is huge and the position often can be lonely. Yael Unterman a bibliotherapist writes:

“Retelling to an outsider helps us to understand what we have been through; it is cathartic. Jethro is one of very few people to whom Moses may speak as a peer, sharing his feelings about everything that just occurred, including ‘all the hardship.’”

Listen and be willing to change. It’s easy to us stick to the known and the familiar, especially in these challenging days, with COVID-19 bringing so much uncertainty to our world. This parashah shows us how the great Moses is humble enough not only to listen to Yitro’s guidance but also to have the courage to act upon it.

Accept and give credit to multiple sources of knowledge. For many, Torah is the ultimate guide for how we run our lives, but as Rabbi Shai Held teaches:

“Just before a moment of encounter with the magnificent presence of God, Exodus stops to teach a lesson: Torah is incomparable, and it is the axis around which Jewish life should rotate. But Torah is not our only source of wisdom and insight. By telling us the story of Jethro, and by placing it exactly where it is in the narrative structure, the Torah itself here endorses and emphasizes that very point.”

And finally let’s remember, as JTS Professor Barry Holtz reminds us: “In the same way that the Passover Haggadah tells us that all of us were part of the Exodus from Egypt, Parashat Yitro suggests that we were all at Sinai as well.”

This is our story, and we have so much to gain from learning and retelling it.

Sara Sless is assistant director at JCC Association of North America’s Center for Israel Engagement in Jerusalem.

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