By Doron Krakow
Rose-Colored Past, Mist-Shrouded Future
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Yitro | פרשת יטרו, finds a lonely and burdened Moses besieged by the pressures of leadership. His days and nights are spent managing, responding to, and contending with every manner of request, challenge, and complaint from an increasingly restless people. They are encamped at the base of Mount Sinai, not yet aware that they are on the brink of the covenant.
The people are weary. They’ve been wandering in the desert for some time, the euphoria of their sudden liberation from Egypt having given way to sore feet, internecine rivalry, and frustration at the conditions and how long it’s taking. The promise remained unfulfilled, distant, and for many—whose confidence in the path they were on was less than entirely full-throated—perhaps it was no great promise at all. Some began to wonder whether they had been better off before the Exodus. Now, in the heart of the harsh and unyielding desert, they looked back and saw housing, however humble; food, however meager; life, however harsh—all familiar and perhaps, in comparison, not so bad after all. This though they’d cried out to God for liberation.
It is at times hard not to see ourselves in these stories: leaders, with seemingly overwhelming responsibility for institutions, organizations, and agencies, sometimes besieged and isolated. Too many eyes turned to us. Too many requests. Too many expectations. Too often in conflict and contradiction with one another.
How frequently do those around us speak of the better days we seemingly left behind? When the present feels insufficient, it is hard not to hearken back to what, perhaps, through a rose-colored rearview mirror looks better than it did when we were living it. That seems particularly true when the present itself is rapt with uncertainty. Though we’re most definitely not wandering the desert in search of the Promised Land, we are navigating the shifting sands of Jewish community and Jewish life in a post-October 7 world.
As much as the seemingly quiet and routine nature of years past may look good to us, they were not always the best of times. So too the ways we worked together. Community expectations differed as did those of our constituents. On reflection, perhaps we weren’t exactly thrilled with how things were then either, but in the face of circumstances that contrast markedly with those that gave rise to our past selves, what we had may not be the right barometer for what we need. And as we navigate through the unsettled present on the road to an uncertain future, we need to draw once more upon the wisdom of Torah.
This week’s parashah brings two critical developments. First, Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, a Midianite priest, impresses upon Moses the imperative that he not bear the burdens of leadership alone. Rather, Yitro urges, he should identify from among the people cadres of leaders to whom he can delegate some of his enormous responsibility. He counsels Moses to select capable men—men who fear God, trustworthy men who reject inclination to dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over subgroups and strata of the people to manage all but the most difficult cases and questions, the latter still to be brought before Moses.
Surround yourself with talent and capability able to amplify your own capacity to lead, to guide, and to shepherd your team and your community through the challenges and unease of periods of complexity, dissension, and disillusionment.
The second and far more profound is the covenant itself, not as between God and Abraham but here, on the path from bondage to independence, between God and the people—all the people. In Exodus 19:4-6, God articulates what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called the mission statement of the Jewish people:
You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now if you obey Me fully and keep My covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is Mine, you will be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Every nation had its priests, distinguished from the people by dress and decorum. Separate and apart. Elite. But what would be distinct about this people, according to Sacks, was that every one of its members was to be a priest; each of its citizens called on to be holy.
What an august conception. That each of us is a unique party to the covenant with God. And that having been so engaged, each is bound to conduct him or herself in the manner of a member of the holy priesthood—with honor, with loyalty, and with devotion to our shared covenant and our shared journey into a mist-shrouded future.
Amidst increasing adversity, the challenges of a community under growing duress, we will find comfort and confidence in that very community, in the recognition that come what may, we are stronger and more capable when we stand together. When we recognize that our internal differences pale in comparison to those things around which we stand united. Unity without uniformity to be sure. But unity as among our highest virtues.
In the coming days, I will make my way to Denver and a gathering of the professional leaders of the Jewish Community Center Movement. This year’s will be one of the largest such gatherings in a generation. Colleagues. Partners. Allies. We’ll grapple with emerging challenges and confer about shared opportunities and common cause. A community of leaders whose eyes must not look backward at some rose-colored past but forward to a time when the mist will clear, revealing a brighter future.
Am Yisrael Chai | עם ישראל חי
Shabbat shalom | שבת שלום
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America