It is the special privilege and challenge of a rabbi to always look for new ways to make ancient texts relevant to our modern day lives. As with many unfamiliar or new things in our lives, the writings of the rabbis can be intimidating for the layperson. This means that entire communities who find their professions and expertise outside of the synagogue, rely on those entrenched in the pages of Torah or other Jewish texts for guidance. Just as I rely on those who are practiced and skilled at law, accounting, medicine, and more, to council me.
This week, the good news for me is that the book of Exodus is so rich, that it’s never hard to find something worth talking about.
Our parashat ha’shavua (weekly portion) of Yitro consists of three primary scenes. First, Jethro (Yitro) – the namesake of our parasha – goes to meet Moses after the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. He brings with him his daughter, Moses’s wife, and grandsons and reaffirms their relationship. This scene is striking not just in its description of family relations, but in the formation of interfaith families, as Jethro was a priest of Midian and not an Israelite. The second scene sees Moses overwhelmed with his task of leading and adjudicating for the Israelites. Jethro, again, comes to Moses. This time suggesting that he institute as system of judges to whom Moses can delegate minor cases. The third scene is maybe one of the most iconic scenes of the Torah – the Israelites witness the grandeur of God at a smoke and fire covered Mount Sinai, receive the Ten Commandments, and promise “na’asei v’nishma,” “we will do, and we will understand.”
Hidden in the second scene, however, is a rarely discussed phrase. In Exodus 18:22, Jethro advises Moses: “Let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you but let them decide every minor dispute themselves.” Most commentaries focus on the first part of this verse in an attempt to determine what “all times” means. Very few commentaries look at the division between major and minor disputes and who is capable of adjudicating them.
Perhaps this is because Moses, the prophet of prophets, had the authority, knowledge, and divine connection to step in and fix any wrong judgement. Perhaps this is because the rest of divine and rabbinic law set up a system that determined the definition of “major” and “minor” disputes. But what strikes me most in the lack of commentary here, is that the rabbis fail to lift up an essential component of Jethro’s system – the people were allowed and capable, even required, to make judgements and interpret their communal texts by themselves. They didn’t need Moses for everything. They could do so much on their own.
What a relief for Moses who, two days after leaving Egypt, was already feeling overwhelmed and overburdened by his community. What empowerment for the Israelites who, two days after becoming free people, were given the opportunity to take ownership over their own lives!
Early on in my rabbinic education I had a teacher who told us that he would know that he’s done his job well when we replace him. I imagine the shift in Moses’ ideal of leadership to be similar to this outlook. When Moses met God in the burning bush, he thought he had to do it all – he had to convince Pharaoh and the Israelites that he was worthy of such a sacred task and could handle the responsibility. And he could. Under Moses’ leadership the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds, no longer feared the wrath of Pharaoh, and saw Moses as the leader God knew he could be.
But for Moses, my teacher, and now for me, sacred responsibility doesn’t come from “doing it all.” It comes from teaching those in our communities, even those who think they lack the expertise, practice, or authority, to step into the role of interpreter and leader. It means that when congregants of any and every age and background replace me as service leader, Torah teacher, Tikkun Olam creator, or community organizer, I know I am doing my job well. I means that I am able to focus on supporting the work of others, challenging those who need a push, and comforting those who are pained or frustrated. It means that I can always find faith in the Jewish future, because the future is created by everyone, by working together, not by working alone.
Jethro’s advice and Moses’ foresight gave rise to the rabbinic job description centuries before rabbis even existed: Wanted: A leader who can do everything it takes to lead a community, but instead teaches everyone around her/him how to do it together.