In Yitro, this week’s Torah portion, the nation of Israel received the Torah. The Sinai experience, arguably the main event in our history, is introduced by and names for Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, coming to visit. Most are quick to point out that Yitro is the consummate consultant. It his critique that seems to bring about the giving of the Torah. There we read:
And Moshe’s father-in-law said to him: ‘The thing that you are doing is not good. You will surely wear away, both you, and this people that is with you; for the thing is too heavy for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself. Hearken now to my voice, I will give you counsel, and God be with you: you will be for the people before God, and you will bring the causes to God.( Exodus 18: 17-19)
Seeing Moshe working himself to the bone, Yitro gives him a plan to organize the adjudicating of the law. In order for them to keep the law they needed a system for teaching the people the law. This is a natural progression to the people getting the Torah at Sinai. Yitro is playing the role of a great consultant helping them operationalize their success, but I do not think that is the limit of his consultancy.
If you have not seen, I would to encourage you to see Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk. He presents a simple but powerful model for inspirational leadership all starting with a golden circle and the question “Why”.
I think this is exactly what Yitro did right at the start of the portion. There we read:
Now Yitro, the priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moshe, and for Israel God’s people, how that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt. And Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moshe’s wife, after he had sent her away, and her two sons; of whom the name of the one was Gershom; for he said: ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land'; and the name of the other was Eliezer: ‘for the God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.’ And Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moshe to the wilderness where he was encamped, at the mount of God. (Exodus 18:1- 5 )
It makes sense that in response to hearing about all of the trials, travails, miracles, and wonders that happened to his son-in-law that Yitro came to see Moshe. It even makes sense that he brought Moshe’s family for a reunion. It does not make sense that in the midst of this reunion the Torah went out of the way to explain the origin and meaning of Gershom and Eliezer’s names. What is the meaning of this?
In thinking about this I was reminded of an old joke. Mr. Altmann and his secretary were sitting in a coffeehouse in Berlin in 1935. “Herr Altmann,” said his secretary, “I notice you’re reading Der Stürmer! I can’t understand why. A Nazi libel sheet! Are you some kind of masochist, or, God forbid, a self-hating Jew?” Mr. Altman replied,”On the contrary, Frau Epstein. When I used to read the Jewish papers, all I learned about were pogroms, riots in Palestine, and assimilation in America. But now that I read Der Stürmer, I see so much more. It says that the Jews control all the banks, that we dominate in the arts, and that we’re on the verge of taking over the entire world. You know – it makes me feel a whole lot better!”
No matter how good or bad things are going we always have a choice as to which story do want to tell. Yitro is the consummate consultant. When he shows up he did not just bring his family, but he put before Moshe a choice. Which story did Moshe want to tell? Did Moshe want to tell the Gershom story that they were marginalized or the Eliezer story that they were in a relationship with a God that helped them? In choosing the story Moshe had to identify their ” Why”. Everything flows from this choice. How would they get to Sinai without a “Why”? They would only meet God – HaShem- the name in Hebrew when they picked a path. This might be the essence of the entire book of Exodus, Shmot- names in Hebrew. Which name do they choose for their “Why”?
More than ever we need to revisit Yitro’s guidance and advice. What story do we want to tell? Is being Jewish an articulation of being an “Anti- Anti-Antisemite” are or are we on a divine mission to help the world? Are we Gershom Jews or Eliezer Jews? Or do we need to make a new name for ourselves? All I know is that a good consultant would help us reflect on the fact that we need to start with our “Why”. Operationalizing our plans and efforts will be easy once we can name our 21st century “Why” .