Please enjoy a d’var Torah this week by Annie Glasser, Engagement and Marketing Coordinator for Ramah Wisconsin. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a B.A. in Political Science and Certificate in Human Rights Studies. She is also an Alumna of Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim. Before joining Ramah Wisconsin, Annie worked in Connecticut as the Youth Director at the Conservative Synagogue (that’s really what it’s called!) and in New York as a consultant for Religions for Peace, a United Nations forum enhancing understanding and collaboration among and between the world’s religious communities.
Reflections on Parashat Yitro
by Annie Glasser
Moses’ leadership approach and style offers us untold takeaways and the early part of Moses’ “career” presents us with crucial lessons. When God first designates Moses as the individual who will, in partnership with God, redeem the Israelites from slavery and lead them into nationhood, Moses famously pleads with God that he is not fit for the task, citing on two different occasions that he is “heavy of speech” and “speaks with faltering lips.”
In this week’s parashah, Yitro, Moses faces a different challenge. Instead of thinking that a physical weakness, a disability, excludes him from leadership, he is figuratively blind to the fact that he cannot shoulder the burden of leadership by himself. His boundless energy and commitment to his role as judge of the Israelites are threatening success just as he thought his speech impediment would!
Before the main event of parashat Yitro – Revelation at Mount Sinai and God’s giving of the Ten Commandments – Moses’ father-in-law Yitro arrives and is astonished at what he finds. After watching Moses sit as magistrate among the people, Yitro questions Moses: “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?” He goes on to advise “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.”
Yitro is pretty much the only father figure Moses ever has, and Yitro’s experience as a Midianite priest gives him valuable experience and perspective on the administrative components of being a religious leader. Moses seems to take his advice to set up a court system with levels of responsibility, allowing Moses to weigh-in only on the most important, difficult, or hotly contested cases.
Interestingly for us, once Moses accepts his role we never again hear of his speech impediment and, in fact, hear speech after speech that Moses delivers through the end of the Torah. The challenge Yitro identifies – delegation and sharing the burden of leadership – continues to plague him however, from the incident of the Golden Calf we’ll read about in a few weeks and through a series of events in Numbers and Deuteronomy which we read at camp every summer. In one of the first verses of Deuteronomy Moses cries out to God: “Alas, how can I possibly bear your troubles, burdens, and disputes all by myself?!”
Yitro, an outsider to the Israelite culture who was not there to witness the galvanizing experiences of the plagues, the Exodus itself, and the crossing of the sea, offers Moses, and us, profound wisdom: no person, no leader, is completely self-sufficient. We can all benefit from guidance, help, and an awareness of our own limitations.
This month is Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month. We would be bereft to not, within that context, underscore again the great irony of the threats that Moses’ physical disability (speech) and figurative disability (inability to share responsibility and delegate) posed for his leadership. Moses benefited from the accommodation of relying on his brother Aaron to be his spokesperson and, possibly, somehow overcomes his struggles with speech to become one of the most famous orators in our history. His issues with delegation and bringing others into his inner circle, however – a hubris and shortsightedness we all suffer to a certain extent as humans – causes issues for him again and again over forty years of leadership.