By Rabbi Kim Blumenthal
This week’s Torah portion is Yitro, Exodus 18:1 – 20:23.
This week’s portion contains among the most well-known sections of Torah — the dramatic revelation of God to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, highlighted by the giving of aseret hadibrot, often translated as The Ten Commandments or Decalogue. The imagery leading into the presentation of these utterances is dramatic and the statements contained within the Decalogue are revolutionary in their presentation of universal principles.
It is no wonder that, in teaching and preaching on this portion we often focus in these directions — there is much to learn, discuss and debate. But, in focusing on revelation and the Decalogue, we often allow the introductory narrative of the portion to be overshadowed.
The reading begins with a reunion. Moses’ wife and children are coming to meet him and the entirety of the Israelite community during the earliest days after the exodus from Egypt. We are told that they had been staying with Yitro — father of Moses’ wife Tziporah and priest of Midian.
Our text describes only the reunion of Moses and Yitro, stating, “Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed low and kissed him; each asked after the other’s welfare…” Moses is the newly anointed leader of the Israelites, likely still shaken from the recent events of the plagues and the first leg of the journey out of Egyptian bondage. Yitro is a priest, an experienced communal leader. He has a unique understanding of Moses’ role in the community, partnered with an intimate, familial relationship with him. Yitro is the closest thing to a parent that the adult Moses has.
After an evening of catching up and a good’s night sleep, Yitro accompanies Moses to work. Yitro observes as people stand before Moses from morning to evening, calling upon him to settle disputes and inquiring of him into the mysteries of God.
In seeing Moses on the job, Yitro confronts him, saying, “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.”
Moses might have responded with an air of superiority, insisting his way was the way of God and nobody was qualified to help him. He might have responded with the immaturity of a young person who assumes that the previous generation’s ways are outdated and less efficient than his own, or that he needs to prove himself to his parent-figure.
Instead, Moses hears Yitro’s words, recognizes their wisdom and heeds the advice. At Yitro’s suggestion, Moses creates an organized judiciary, choosing capable individuals as judges for the people.
Leadership can be lonely. Knowing who to trust to inform consequential decisions is one of the isolating factors for any leader. In his father-in-law, Moses found a parent who stepped into the role with unwavering commitment; a mentor who offered harsh, but needed, criticism; and a friend whose presence gave him strength and comfort as he evolved into the leader of a transformative generation. Their relationship was rare and noteworthy.
Rabbi Kim Blumenthal is rabbi of Bet Chaverim of Howard County.