By Rabbi Tsurah August
Yitro! We need you now! We need your guidance in these times of chaotic (non)governance. We need your maturity, your wisdom, your compassion, your empathy, discernment, sechel! We need to be heard, respected, inspired. We need you, Yitro!
Alas, Yitro is no more. But the excellent model he shows us remains. (His very name signifies excellence.)
In the opening section of the parshah, Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, offers Moses a new way to govern — replacing the paradigm of having one leader (Moses) passing judgment on everything (with directions from Adonai), with a system of shared governance and shared responsibility.
Wonderful! Game changing! Yasher koach Yitro!
But what I see as the deep genius of Yitro is the model that it offers to us, not of governance, but of how to be an effective counselor and a change-maker. For me, the means is of greater value than the ends.
So how does Yitro do this? Let’s look at his process:
First, he prepares for this important meeting: Even before embarking on his journey to visit Moses, he learns all about what Moses has been dealing with up to that point. He gets the facts.
Yitro knows his role in Moses’ life: He is coming as Moses’ father-in-law. He honors Moses’ position, not only as leader of the Israelites, but as husband and father — affirming that they are mishpachah, he is coming to reunite the family. He sets the foundation for the visit. And, importantly, he gives Moses time to prepare himself.
Upon meeting, they publicly greet each other with both formal and informal welcoming rituals, showing mutual respect and concern for each other — and then move into the privacy of the tent, where a deeper sharing can be comfortably made.
Now, in the privacy of the tent, Yitro listens to Moses’ recitation of his experiences. Everything! From bondage to the Exodus! Everything — up until that very moment. Now, we know Moses was not an orator, in fact, he was slow of speech. How long did this take? It doesn’t matter. Yitro listened. Without interruptions. He listened. He heard. He was present. He gave not his interpretations — but his attention. Yitro is patient!
When Moses is done, Yitro does not respond with a recount of his own experiences during their time apart — he keeps his attention on Moses, rejoicing with him, affirming Moses’ experiences and Moses’ gratitude to Adonai.
Although he is a priest of Midian, Yitro initiates a ritual of Thanksgiving to Adonai, Moses’ God, honoring Moses’ path and, therefore, creating an even deeper bond with him, Aaron and the elders who are included in the ritual. (Some commentators say that Yitro went so far as to convert at this ceremony, but we will hold on that.)
So far, so good. Yitro prepared, knew his role, honored Moses and prepared Moses for the visit. He has shown respect publicly and privately. He has listened attentively. He has entered into Moses’ personal and spiritual world. He establishes that mishpachah! He can be trusted.
The next morning Moses goes to work, and Yitro accompanies him. I imagine Yitro standing in an unobtrusive place, silently witnessing Moses and the people. And what he observes gives him concern — Moses will wear out both himself and the people. He continues silently observing until only he and Moses are left.
Only then, in private, does Yitro offer his advice.
And his advice is heeded, by Moses and the people. When Yitro and Moses know the plan is working, Moses sends him forth. Dayenu! His counsel is no longer needed here. But his method of advising remains to this day.
So, I offer us Yitro’s method to bring us through these treacherous times. Yes, those were seemingly simpler times. But we humans have not greatly evolved (if at all!) in these few millennia. We still recoil from treachery and respond to those same qualities that make Yitro’s method successful: empathy, trust, patience, respect, attentiveness, inclusion, compassion.
It is still crucial to know ourselves and what we each value, as well as to know and honor the other’s values. And, in all the noise, to use the gift of listening.
V’yishema Yitro — and Yitro listened.
Rabbi Tsurah August is a rabbi with Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.