Amidst the manufactured reality of our socially distanced separation, this week’s parashah reminds us about the essential role that trusting relationships have in connecting us with the Holy and helping us live into our best selves.
In between the Torah’s narrative of the splitting of the sea and G!D’s giving of the Ten Commandments, there is a short passage re-introducing Yitro (Jethro), Moses’ father-in-law. Yitro is a Midianite priest (that is, an outsider), and our tradition views him as a wise and holy person.
The story starts as Yitro reunites with Moses and the Israelites and quickly becomes aware of the great struggles they were enduring in order to maintain a level of civility amongst the community. Moses had been acting as the sole intermediary between the community and G!D, especially in matters of dispute, both large and small. It was obvious to Yitro that this arrangement was creating problems for everyone involved, and he takes it upon himself to counsel Moses about what he observes.
And to provide us with a reliable model of sacred interaction. The soul-to-soul connection that Yitro’s words engender illustrates for us how trusting relationships – whether it be with a friend, teacher, Rabbi, family member, co-worker, boss, sponsor, sponsee, treatment team, neighbor – any trusting relationship calls us to approach ourselves, another, and G!D with an open heart and an open mind, and challenges us to live into our best selves.
Yitro’s approach to offering advice to his leader-of-a-people son-in-law reminds me of sacred counseling that I’ve been blessed to receive, and a deeper look helps guide me in my own relationships. You see, it’s in the back and forth between Yitro and Moses: it creates the space for G!D to dwell and for each of them to share a piece of themselves with the other.
But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” (Exodus 18:14)
Tactfully, he both recounts his observations to Moses and enquires about Moses’ perspective. We can see how Yitro works to establish truth, knowing that if they are not on the same page and moving in a shared direction his input will only invite discord between them.
But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “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. (Exodus 18:17-18)
Eventually Yitro respectfully rebukes Moses for trying to do too much and, with G!D’s blessing, provides him with an alternative – a solution for setting up a more effective leadership structure.
It’s obvious to Yitro that Moses, whom our tradition considers to be the humblest person who ever lived, has overextended himself. Moses fails to recognize his own limitations and, in so doing, unwittingly inflicts negative consequences on the community and on himself. In his effort to be all to all (which ultimately is only G!D’s role), regardless of whether his intentions were noble or selfish, Moses diminished a connection to his own soul, leaving himself vulnerable and compromised, unable to fully connect to others. It took a trusted advisor to point out the flaws in his behavior and to offer an alternative.
Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow. (Exodus 18:19)
I’m inspired by Yitro’s model and modeling of leadership through his counseling. Repeatedly, he reminds Moses about his essential (and Divine) purpose and calls upon his sense of higher obligation to make necessary changes. By helping Moses to get out of himself and connect with his Soul, he guides him to humbly surrender, in self-acceptance, to the universal truth that he, like all of us, is both a Holy Soul and an imperfect human. As Yitro points out, it is through Moses’ acceptance of this counsel that G!D is with him.
If you do this – and God so commands you – you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.” (Exodus 18:23)
Yitro speaks to us, as well, telling us that it’s through our willingness to listen deeply – with an open mind and with proper intention – to the people we trust, that we can align our authentic selves with G!D’s will and connect to the G!Dliness within both ourselves and others.
Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said. (Exodus 18:24)
The Torah then describes how Moses heeds Yitro’s guidance, enacting his counsel. It goes on to note that, once put in place, this alternative leadership system allowed the entire community to find themselves in a place of peace.
May the counsel that we encounter (and that we provide to others) lead to peace!
Chaplain Adam Siegel