Torah portion: Balancing our priestly lives

Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)
February 4, 2015

I have particular fondness for Parshat Yitro. While it contains some of the defining moments of Israelite religion — the revelation at Sinai, the giving of the Decalogue and the injunction that we should become “a kingdom of priests” — my delight is in the tale that precedes these epiphanous moments. 

Shortly after the jubilation following the parting of the Sea of Reeds, Yitro, the Midianite priest who is Moses’ father-in-law and spiritual mentor, arrives at Moses’ camp at the foot of Mount Sinai. Yitro brings his daughter, Zipporah, who is Moses’ wife, and their two sons to reunite with the man who led the Israelites out of slavery. 

By delivering his family, Yitro begins his instruction to Moses regarding self-care as an essential component of the life of a leader. Certainly family life can be an important corrective for the dangers of self-aggrandizement and burnout that can accompany the role of the charismatic leader.

It’s a refreshing view of Moses. He hangs with his father-in-law, and the two guys marvel at the amazing things that have happened since their last meeting: the confrontations with Pharaoh, the plagues, the Exodus, the splitting of the sea. I imagine Moses taking a deep breath, letting down his guard with his beloved teacher and saying: “Wow, Dad … Can you believe it?!” Yitro delights in his protege’s accomplishments, which he had heard about way back in Midian. But then things turn serious.

“Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said … ‘Why do you act alone? … 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’ ”  (Exodus 18:13-18). 

Moses confides to his mentor the burden of his role as leader as each Israelite comes to him to “L’drosh YHVH/Inquire about God” (Exodus 18:15). The medieval biblical commentator Nachmanides (the Ramban) interprets this phrase as referring to the custom of bikur cholim (visiting the sick), saying, “The people came to Moshe to ask him to pray to God on their behalf. Moshe devoted much of his day to praying for the sick.”

This implies that people came to Moses with the same questions that contemporary spiritual caregivers encounter when we care for the vulnerable. Inquiring about God is what people do when they come to me, my students and colleagues from any Sea of Reeds in their lives — both before and after the sea has parted, in moments of vulnerability and of exhilaration. They ask the existential questions: Why me? What does it mean to be human? What kind of God would do this? 

These are the profound questions about the nature of life that ultimately allow us to make peace both with human mortality and God’s great mystery. They direct our lives to something beyond material existence.

Being present to these questions is the work of “the kingdom of priests.” However, it is taxing, and Yitro’ s concern for Moses is appropriate. We are subject to burnout. Yitro offers a suggestion. He essentially says, man-to-man, “Dude, you’re doing too much! It’s going to wear you out! You’ve got to delegate!” 

Yitro’s advice to Moses is certainly relevant to our culture’s reverence of workaholism. His instruction to Moses on the art of self-care is strategically placed between the two epiphanies in the Jewish narrative: the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and the giving of the Torah. It is a statement about what we must do between the peaks in our lives if we are to assimilate their meaning and ground them in life’s practicalities.

Yitro’s advice to Moses is a statement about the price of leadership, too. It establishes a hierarchy through which Moses “shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear G-d … Set these over them as chiefs … and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you” (Exodus 21-22).

This plan presents a framework that is a step down from the despotism of a pharaonic system in the direction of the more egalitarian organization of society mandated later. I love that Yitro’s life-giving plan is in Chapter 18, a number synonymous with “life” in Hebrew.

And how brilliant it is that while many Jewish days of observance take place at the full moon, Shavuot, the day we celebrate receiving Torah at Sinai (described later in Parshat Yitro), takes place a few days before then. It reserves the brighter light for the descent from the holy moment on the mountain. It provides a guiding beacon for the way down and protects us from a fall. 

We need such protection. After the peak moments, with which we are blessed, we need some soft moonlight to guide us home. May Shabbat’s promise of refreshment and joy be especially soothing this week, as we read Parshat Yitro and its concern for balance and self-care in our lives. 

Rabbi Anne Brener, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist and spiritual adviser, is professor of ritual and human development at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. She is also the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights Publishing).

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