Rabbi David Levin
Who is wise? One who learns from all ~ Pirkei Avot 4:1
Among many lessons, this week’s Parshah Yitro teaches that we need to learn from one another, no matter who we are or who we may be. Even the most powerful and influential among us still have more learning to do and share.
So, Yitro shares that we need to find ways to reach out to others, and we also need to find ways to listen, in other words, to build bridges of understanding toward and with each other.
We cannot do it alone. Our tradition teaches us that through connections, we learn from others. Teaching is often modeled as chevrutah; we discuss and debate a topic or issue with a partner. We engage in machloket, a constructive dialogue, sometimes profound and often passionate. Our exchange is done “for the sake of Heaven” so that we may learn from each other through a conversation about a text or an idea. We expect each of us to have a different perspective or “fresh eyes.” It is an opportunity to gain wisdom. This wisdom doesn’t require a particular title, position, or age, only that we can share it.
We respect our teachers and parents by not taking their space, not speaking for them or arguing (BT Kiddushin 31b:14). But if we get caught up in our ego, sense of privilege, preconceptions or prejudices, we create barriers to giving or receiving this knowledge; the opportunity to gain wisdom is squandered. Yitro disrupts the old paradigm.
Yitro does not wait for Moses to reappear in Midian. As the high priest and the father-in-law to Moses, Yitro could have been justified in waiting for Moses to come to him. Instead, Yitro goes out to meet Moses and brings Moses’ family to reunite them. Furthermore, Yitro listens to Moses recount the story of the Exodus as though it is new news, although our text makes it clear that Yitro has already heard all about it.
Once again, Moses needs Yitro’s help, although Moses’ station might have also presented a barrier to such admitted vulnerability. We know Moses as deeply humble, a reluctant prophet and spokesman, and one who often turned to God for guidance in the Midbar.
However, now Moses is in a unique position, making it hard to hear the voice of even a trusted friend, for Moses was placed in the role of “God to Pharoah” (Ex. 7:1) and the leader of the people out of Egypt. But Moses has perspective and appreciates his situation.
And Yitro likely understands Moses’ position with its complexities.
Yitro shares the wisdom of his experience. From him, Moses learns the idea of a decentralized authority of justice, thus freeing Moses from day-to-day affairs that currently overwhelm him and permitting Moses the necessary time for the other important work he is called to do.
Parshah Yitro shows us the task of teaching from both sides. First, Yitro asks us to approach others so they can be receptive to us without our ego or sense of privilege interfering. And for those in Moses’ position, can we admit when we need help, also without our ego or sense of privilege interfering? We must approach each other with reverence and respect, setting aside our egos to reach out.
Ancient architecture has taught us that arches cannot exist without a keystone. This center stone holds the entire structure together with extraordinary strength and resilience; without the keystone, the arch collapses. So, can we understand that metaphorically we are part of an arch needing the other side to be complete — but also realizing that the only way to connect is through a keystone?
The keystone is the thing that brings us together and strengthens us. The keystone can be seeking knowledge, knowing our limitations or understanding that we are better in relationships with others. Parshah Yitro teaches that we need to build bridges with one another, appreciating both our limitations and our gifts.
Rabbi David Levin is the founder and manages Jewish Relationships Initiative, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to helping seekers of meaning through Jewish wisdom, focusing on relationships and end-of-life challenges. He also serves on the executive committee of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia as vice president of programming. 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.