The man who kept Moses from burning out

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By Rabbi James R. Michaels
Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Yitro, Exodus 18:1 – 20:23.


Quick question: How many Torah portions are named after Moses? The answer is — none. Does it seem ironic? Moses, the greatest leader of the Jewish people, the prophet without peer, the man who received the Torah and transmitted it to us doesn’t have his name on any of the 54 portions in the Torah.

This week’s portion, however, bears the name of Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro. And it’s no ordinary portion: It describes the events at Mount Sinai, where Israel received the Torah. So why call it Yitro?

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One reason, of course, is that Yitro’s name appears in the first verse, so it follows the pattern of how all Torah portions are named. But that ignores the important role that Yitro plays in this portion. I believe the ancient rabbis named this portion for Yitro because they wanted to call attention to the lessons we can all learn from Yitro’s role in this story.

Yitro was a Midianite priest. When Moses escaped Egypt, he took refuge in Yitro’s camp and eventually married his daughter, Tziporah. Moses returned to Egypt to fulfill his mission of freeing the Israelites. Yitro heard of this great event and came to greet Moses.


After a celebratory meal, Yitro offers Moses two pieces of advice. He had observed Moses sitting and making rulings on cases he’s asked to resolve. Each case was brought directly to Moses, creating a logjam of people seeking resolution. Yitro suggests that Moses establish a system of lower and intermediate courts, allowing the people to receive justice more quickly. Moses would resolve only the most difficult cases.

Yitro’s idea was to bring relief for the people and enable them to have faith in the judicial system. He also saw that Moses would be burned out by this heavy judicial burden, and wouldn’t have time or energy to deal with his other responsibilities.

Yitro’s second piece of advice is more spiritual. He says to Moses, “Teach the people the path they should walk and the things they should do.”

This has been interpreted as meaning two things: First, Moses should teach the people Torah; then he should help them find the spiritual meaning within the law.

There’s a message for all of us in Yitro’s suggestion: Most of us know that there are Jewish religious practices that delineate holidays and seasons, as well as the blessings and mitzvot which we observe every day. The question we should ask is whether we can find the spiritual meaning of these practices. If not, there are resources to help: books, online lessons, local programs and rabbis we can ask for assistance. There’s a treasure trove of available information to enrich our lives.

Questions for discussion:
1. As we go about our daily lives, do we run the risk of personal burnout? What do we do for self-care?
2. When we observe a mitzvah or a ritual, do we pause to reflect on its spiritual meaning? What can we do to enhance our spirituality?

Rabbi James R. Michaels is the director of pastoral education at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities.

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