“Jethro’s Advice to an Overburdened Leader”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, we learn of Judaism’s remarkable openness and willingness to consider and adopt ideas from outside sources, even non-Jewish sources.

It is in parashat Yitro that Moses is reunited with his father-in-law, Jethro, the High Priest of Midian, who comes with Moses’s wife and children to join the Jewish people after hearing of the miraculous salvation of the Jewish people from Egypt. Moses proceeds to tell Jethro of all that G-d had done to Pharaoh and to Egypt for Israel’s sake, and how G-d had rescued them from certain annihilation. Jethro blesses G-d and brings offerings in G-d’s name.

The very next day, Jethro has an opportunity to watch as Moses judges the people from morning until evening, and questions Moses’s actions (Exodus 18:14): “Mah ha’dah’var hah’zeh ah’sher ah’tah oh’seh lah’ahm?” What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit alone with all the people standing by you from morning until evening? Moses humbly explains that he is trying to attend to the needs of the people who have questions and require judgment. Jethro responds (Exodus 18:17): “Lo tov ha’dah’var ah’sher ah’tah oh’seh.” The thing that you do is not good. You will surely wither, you and the people that are with you, for this matter is too hard for you, and you will not be able to do it alone (Exodus 18:18).

Jethro then suggests that Moses establish an hierarchy of judges to share the responsibilities of judging the people. Jethro recommends that there be leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties and leaders of tens, who will judge the people at all times. Matters that are great, however, will be brought directly to Moses.

Jethro’s advice is adopted and implemented, saving Moses from overload and exhaustion, and sparing the people from having to wait interminably for a chance to speak directly with Moses. Jethro’s advice surely made good sense and resulted in a more efficient judicial process.

There is much that contemporary leaders can learn from Jethro’s advice to Moses about avoiding personal burnout and the heavy price that leaders often pay in their own personal and family relationships. It is not uncommon for leaders and teachers to regard themselves as being indispensable. “My students need me!” “My disciples cannot get along without me!” From this parasha we learn that no one, not even Moses, is indispensable, that even the greatest leaders cannot do everything themselves and need to delegate to others so they many utilize their time efficiently.

Similarly, while many of us like to believe that we can be all things to all people, this is simply not so. Too often, we see young leaders unnecessarily suffer burn-out early in their careers and/or pay the heavy price of an unhappy family life, due to unrealistic idealistic expectations, or overinflated ego. Leaders, who tend to see themselves as paradigms for others, are often exceedingly available to meet with complete strangers, but unavailable to their own families. Parashat Yitro teaches us that it is good to have a wise father-in-law and/or firm spouse. We all need to set limits and establish realistic goals about what we can undertake and accomplish. It is not only sensible, but vital, to keep in mind that tried-and-tested fundamental Jewish formula: “Structure is liberating.”

Another important lesson derived from Jethro’s advice is how important and healthy it is for students/disciples to receive diverse pedagogical exposures. Not every teacher, not every rabbi, not every master can teach all subjects, nor is it true that they can be effective with all types of people. Different students have different needs.

While we like to think that we are G-d’s gift to humankind, not every student will be in “sync” with us, or will agree with our particular philosophy or approach. Healthy Baalei Teshuva need multiple religious experiences to insure that the newly religious be exposed to alternative approaches to spirituality and learning, and establish independence and self-confidence, rather than become mindless sycophants who are forever dependent upon their original teachers. True, it is not easy for a rabbi or a teacher to let go after investing so much in their beloved students, but teachers, rabbis and leaders have to have their students’ benefit at heart, rather than their own feelings. After all, who could be a more effective teacher/leader than the great Moses? Yet Moses readily agreed with Jethro to delegate authority. It takes a “big man” to humble himself, to recognize that there may be others out there who may be better qualified to teach and counsel a particular student.

Parashat Yitro clearly validates the greatness of Moses, whose willingness to step back and “contract” himself made him that much more effective to many more people. One need not be an educator in order to benefit from this lesson. Those who heed Jethro’s sage advice will surely benefit.

May you be blessed.