We might have imagined that Moshe would be preparing for God’s Revelation at Sinai by engaging in deep spiritual preparation. Instead, as the Torah reading opens, we see a leader who appears to be simply overwhelmed.
Sometimes you find heroes in unlikely places:
Consider this unlikely hero: As an infant, he was largely abandoned to a nanny. His mother, in fact, rarely saw him. His dad almost never did. At the age of 7, he was sent to a boarding school where he proved to be literally the worst in his class. His parents got reports that declared their son “seems unable to learn anything.”
He was punished severely, once being dragged into a room and beaten until bloody for school infractions. He made no friends in school. Later, as a teen, his father wouldn’t let him go to the best school, reasoning that his son would just embarrass him, that he was “such a stupid boy.” He just couldn’t accept that kind of public humiliation from that “damned impudent little idiot.”
The class would march out in rank order, from the highest score to the lowest. He was always dead last. His parents were embarrassed, so they stayed home instead of attending any school functions.
When the son proudly wrote his dad telling him he had been accepted into military college, his dad finally wrote back to say, “You are a constant disappointment to me … Not only are you a complete failure, I see nothing ahead of you but failure … Do not write me anymore; I do not wish to hear anything more from you.”
So who is this failure of a son? Who went nowhere and did nothing? Who was hampered by a loveless childhood with a detached mother and a verbally and emotionally abusive father who never understood or cared for his own son?
He was an artist, winning several awards under a pseudonym.
He was a very successful author of several books (one winning him the Nobel Prize) that ultimately made him a wealthy man.
He was the lone voice who saw war coming in the appeasement policies Neville Chamberlain brokered with Germany.
He was made Prime Minister of England twice and presided over a successful war against the spread of Nazism.
His name was Sir Winston Churchill — one of the greatest leaders and heroes of the 20th century — but certainly not a man whose early history would have predicted such greatness.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Yitro, the Israelites gather at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. What is about to occur at Sinai represents the apex of Moshe Rabbeinu’s life’s work to this point. From the time that he has been lifted from the Nile to be raised in Pharaoh’s court; to the moment he has killed an Egyptian taskmaster and fled into exile; to the moment he has responded to God’s call at the Burning Bush; to the moment that Moshe has confronted Pharaoh and been God’s instrument to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and across the Sea to freedom; with all that has led up to this moment, we might have imagined that Moshe would be preparing for God’s Revelation at Sinai by engaging in deep spiritual preparation.
Instead, as the Torah reading opens, we see a leader who appears to be simply overwhelmed. Not only is Moshe responsible for the political leadership of the Israelites, but he has taken on responsibility for the judicial leadership as well. Moshe sits as the magistrate for the people; the Torah tells us that the Israelite people must wait from morning until night to have a chance to speak with Moshe and to have a legal issue resolved.
Enter our unlikely hero: Moshe’s father-in-law, Jethro, the Midianite priest. Jethro takes one look at the situation and instantly diagnoses the problem. It is simply way too much responsibility for any one human being. Jethro reminds his son-in-law that it is Moshe’s responsibility to teach the Israelites God’s decrees and instructions. But in order to implement those teachings, Moshe needs to delegate responsibility to other leaders and officials within the community. Moshe needs to do this not only because he will burn out if he doesn’t, but because leadership cannot — and should not — be concentrated in any one person’s hands.
It is ironic that the person most responsible for delegating judicial authority is a Midianite priest who happens to appear on the scene and understands an untenable situation when he sees it. Once Moshe has delegated authority to capable leaders, a new generation of leaders is empowered and the smooth functioning of a judiciary system can begin. All because of what Jethro is able to observe in a moment.
Now that others share in the responsibility for interpreting God’s law, the Israelites are truly ready to receive Revelation at Sinai. Jethro, the unlikely hero, has reminded the people that while Moshe is our greatest teacher, living in a relationship to Torah is each person’s responsibility. That is why each and every Jew today has the responsibility to live in relationship to Torah and to be part of a community in which our understanding of God’s will is made manifest.
Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom.
The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.