Urgent message:

Given the most challenging situation in Israel at this time, I urge all to pray for the bereaved families, the hostages, the missing and the many casualties. Please try to perform additional mitzvot, send funds to help the needy and grieving families, and attend the rallies that are being organized in support of Israel.

May the Al-mighty protect the State of Israel, its citizens and bless it with peace!

“Jethro’s Advice to an Overburdened Leader”
(updated and revised from Yitro 5765-2005)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, we learn of Judaism’s remarkable openness and willingness to consider and adopt ideas from outside resources, 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 Egyptian enslavement.

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 sacrificial offerings in G-d’s name.

The very next day, Jethro has an opportunity to watch as Moses judged the people from morning until evening. Soon after, Jethro questions Moses’s actions (Exodus 18:14): מָה הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה לָעָם? “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 18:17-18): לֹא טוֹב הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה, “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.”

Jethro then suggests that Moses establish a 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 was adopted and implemented, saving Moses from overload and exhaustion, and sparing the people from having to wait interminably for a chance to receive judgment or 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 may utilize their time efficiently.

Similarly, while many of us erroneously 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 egos. 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 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 multiple pedagogical exposures. Not every teacher, not every rabbi, not every master can teach all subjects, nor is it true that a particular mentor can be effective with all types of people. Different students have different needs.

While we often 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. So, for instance, healthy Baalei Teshuva (Jews who discover, or return to, traditional observance) need multiple religious experiences to ensure 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 mentors/teachers. True, it is not easy for a rabbi or a teacher to let go after investing so much effort in their beloved students, but teachers, rabbis and leaders have to have their students’ benefit at heart, rather than their own needs and 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 these lessons. Those who heed Jethro’s sage advice, will surely benefit.

May you be blessed.