By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

At a time when I supplemented my Developmental Drama training by studying – and practicing — Community Organization and Development, one of the essential skills taught was to recognize and understand different leadership styles. In particular, we were taught to recognize our individual styles on a sliding scale – dependent on circumstances — that ranged from authoritarian through democratic to laissez-faire (or vice versa), or combinations thereof. We were taught not only “what” to use but also “when” to use it. It was an eye-opening course.

In our Torah portion this week, appropriately named Yitro, we are introduced to Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, who is an esteemed Midianite priest (his daughter, Zipporah, is Moses’ wife). Like a good Dad-in-law, Jethro has come, accompanied by Zipporah and the two children she has borne to Moses, to see how his long-absent son-in-law is faring now that he has led the Exodus of enslaved Hebrews from Egypt into the wilderness. In Jethro’s experienced estimation, Moses is doing far too much, wearing himself out and growing harried in the task. So in a memorable text, Jethro gently gives Moses some advice based on his own experience as a Midianite leader. Spread the work around, let others share in it, he tells Moses, who claims that the people come to him ceaselessly to settle disputes and to “interpret the laws and teachings of God”:

“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. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow. You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, 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 for you. If you do this – and God so commands you – you will be able to bear up; and all the people too will go home unwearied” (Exodus 18:17-23).

A tired Moses is open to learning from Jethro that leadership does not have to be exercised alone. Alone is NOT GOOD.  As my favorite commentator, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, God only uses the words “not good” in one other place in the Torah, in the phrase, “It is not good [lo tov] for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18)”[1].

Up until now, responding to the urgent needs of the Exodus, Moses has exercised authoritarian rule. Now, listening to Yitro’s wise and experienced counsel, he will institute a shared system of government. It will still be top-down, hierarchical leadership, true, but on the sliding scale of leadership, it will represent a giant step towards early biblical governance: by the tribes, then by the priests, by judgeship, kingship, by prophetic warnings of disaster, and by the commitment to rebuild again and again. Thousands of years later, when there is a Jewish government once again in the Promised Land, it will be a democracy that has survived exile, tyranny, and horrific persecution.  Even then, it will remain a democracy still necessarily alert, sometimes militarily, to continued hostile threats from without and within, a democracy still demanding strong but wise leadership.

After Jethro’s advice on leadership in the parsha, though, the text takes us by surprise: As the serious conversation about temporal government shifts to moral government on a higher plane, we find Aseret Ha-Devarim, the Ten Utterances. In English, we more commonly call them the Ten Commandments. Since the time of Moses, these utterances have been the highest form of government for the Jewish people. In abiding by these utterances, we Jews – and those of other religions who have integrated these same commandments, these same utterances, into their own belief systems — have tried through the centuries to lead our lives by moral precepts. We have done this despite repeated attempts throughout recorded history to take us in a different direction from the morality these utterances demand. We have done this no matter what place a current temporal leader in any country may occupy on the sliding scale of good governance.

As the brilliant medieval rabbi, Ibn Ezra, explains, “[W]hat you cannot decide, you will bring before God”[2].

[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Justice or Peace (Yitro 5777),” Covenant and Conversation, 13 Feb. 2017.

[2] Ibn Ezra, “Exodus,” The Commentators’ Bible: The Rubin JPS Miqra’’ot Gedolot, ed. Michael Carasik (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005) 144.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.