You’ve Got a Friend

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By Rabbi Tsurah August
Parshat Yitro

Before I became a rabbi, I was a management consultant to large corporations. One of my roles was to help them find leaders for new enterprises.

There were basically three different types of leaders: people who built new businesses; people who maintained and grew businesses; and people who transformed businesses that were in trouble. Yitro was a transformer.


Initially, I was going to focus this dvar on Yitro’s brilliance as an organization consultant, the crucial role governance plays in society and the imperative of having a common document of ethical behavior.

However, I left the world of consulting to become a rabbi and chaplain. And while I still see Yitro as an exemplary organizational change-agent, the lens I now see through has changed.

One of the best pieces of advice I received in my “practical” rabbinic training was “know what hat you are wearing.” So, today, as I don my kippah on my way to officiate at a funeral, I will focus on Yitro as kinsman, friend, trusted companion and chaplain.

Along with the high drama of political intrigue of the past four years, another drama has gripped us — the pandemic. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on all of our lives in so many ways. One of the most crushing of all is the physical suffering and death it has and continues to cause. During this time, each of us is called to ease the suffering — of friends, family, neighbors and all those with whom we share at most six degrees of separation (or 6 feet).

There are myriad needs and ways to help. And we want to help. But how can we do the most good? Yitro is here, in this week’s parshah, to offer a model that works. It is very similar to the approach of pastoral care that is taught to clergy in Clinical Pastoral Education, known as CPE, and it works for all of us who want to reach out to help alleviate the suffering all around us.

We met Yitro earlier, when he invited Moses, who was seeking refuge from the threat of death from Egyptian authorities, into his family. Moses married Yitro’s daughter, Tziporah, with whom Moses had two sons, Gershon and Eliezer.

Then, as the drama of our Exodus unfolds, we don’t hear about Yitro. He is in Midian with Tziporah and sons, as the Israelites’ journey out of Mitzraim unfolds:

Through Bondage, Plagues, Terror, Dread, Regret, Anger, Blame
Hunger, Thirst, Regret, Fear, Hope, Despair …

And now, enter Yitro. He is wise, skilled and experienced enough to know the difference between helping and “fixing” — and he cares about Moses and the people.
First, Yitro astutely gives Moses and his family time to reunite alone before meeting individually with him. Wise move, Yitro! Moses needed that intimate time with Tziporah before engaging with her father. And Yitro needed the time to take his own gauge of the community and time to prepare himself for this important meeting.
When Moses and Yitro do meet, Yitro takes time to reestablish their relationship and build ease and trust with Moses. I’ve distilled the process that Yitro used, down to the quintessence/ikar of his process:

  • Choose a time when you won’t be pressed for time.
  • “Check in” with some light conversation.
  • Ensure privacy and confidentiality.
  • Listen to everything without comment or interruption.
  • After listening, offer feedback and understanding of what was shared.
  • Empathize.
  • Affirm, affirm, affirm.
  • Show respect for beliefs.
  • Build trust.
  • Take time to just be present.
  • Share a meal.
  • Take time alone to assimilate all that was heard, seen and felt.
  • Spend more time simply being present, observing without commenting.
  • Invite further discussion to “tell me more.”
  • Ask if advice and/or resources are wanted.
  • Be available for future discussions.

In preparation for the program I am doing for JFCS Facebook Live next week, on how to reach out to friends who have had a loss, I reached out to friends and clients and asked them what were some of the best and some of the worst ways people had reached out to them.
It was no surprise to me that the best were some version of the things above. And these can even be done over Zoom or the phone. The worst were attempts to immediately “fix” the pain and suffering with advice or their own religious beliefs.

Thank you, Yitro, for being here for us, Bim Heyra B’Yameinu.

Rabbi Tsurah August is the chaplain for Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.

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