In Yitro, this week’s Torah portion, there is a recitation of the Ten Commandments by Moses, and although those laws help create the foundation for Judaism, there are other crucial lessons in this portion that can help guide us today concerning the role each of us plays in the Jewish community, our interactions with non-Jews, and the importance of Torah in our work. The portion begins with Moses in the desert, leading the Jewish people toward Mount Sinai. There, Moses is visited by Yitro, his non-Jewish father-in-law. Yitro offers advice to Moses on how to be a wise leader and advises him to have others help him serve as judges when disputes arise among the Jewish people. After Moses and Yitro finish discussing these matters, Moses travels to Mount Sinai where God delivers the Ten Commandments, and Moses recites them to the gathered crowd.
Yitro plays a crucial role in this section of the Torah, when he helps to council Moses during attempts to serve as a mediator when disputes arose. Moses was handling all of these problems himself, and Yitro realizes this is far too much work for Moses to handle without any assistance. Yitro suggests that Moses appoint other Jews to serve as judges and leaders for the groups of thousands, hundreds, fifty, and ten so that these other leaders can handle lesser disputes.
This illustrates the importance that each of us plays within the Jewish tribe. Although Moses is held in high regard for his wisdom and justice, there was far too much work for him to do alone, and if he hadn’t been able to turn to others for help, he would have surely failed. In any struggle that the Jewish community might face today, having strong and wise leaders is important, but so is having people to help them with all the other tasks they need, no matter how unimportant they seem, because without all of that combined help, the efforts would not succeed. Similarly, when writing a Torah, tradition says that anyone who writes a single letter in the Torah, it is as if they have done the whole thing, because without that one person’s assistance, the Torah would not have been completed.
The role of Yitro in this portion also serve as a useful lesson for today. Yitro is not identified as Jewish in this portion, as he recognizes that God is most powerful, but he also worships other deities. Still, he comes to Moses offering advice, and Moses accepts his counsel and acts on his suggestion. At a time when the Jewish people were all together in the desert, it was still a gentile who came forward with the best advice for Moses. Today, when there are many college campuses with only a small number of Jewish students, there are other groups they can turn to for help in creating successful programs. Whether it is an interfaith breakfast to commemorate Yom Kippur and Ramadan or a black/Jewish seder for passover, these types of multicultural activities emulate the spirit of the exchange when Yitro was working with Moses.
Finally, we see in this portion the importance of the Torah to the Jewish people. Previously, Moses has served as the leader of the Jews as they escaped Egypt and wandered in the desert. Moses is a tzadik among his generation, and he received assistance from God in overcoming the obstacles he faces. Finally, in Yitro, Moses appoints others to serve as judges alongside him, choosing people who do not have this personal relationship with God. Although at first it seems like they would not be as wise or fair as Moses, promptly after these judges are appointed, Moses goes up Mount Sinai to receive the Commandments from God. The link between these Jews being appointed as judges and receiving the Commandments from God shows that all the wisdom these leaders need to help adjudicate matters correctly can be found in the Torah. Today, when we might not have direct instructions from God on how best to handle problems that arise, we still have the Torah, which was used then as a substitute for God’s wisdom in helping the new Jewish leaders serve the Jewish people.
Although the struggles we have today pale in comparison to what Moses and the Jewish tribe faced as the wandered the desert, we can gain important insight from Yitro. Like Moses, we can turn to non-Jews for assistance, and we can learn the importance of delegating work, and realize that whatever role we might place in accomplishing something (no matter how small) our efforts are crucial for success. Finally, we see that in all the difficulties we face, we have the Torah to guide us, the same way the early leaders did that served under Moses, and by passing on this Torah wisdom to students, we prepare them for being strong leaders themselves.
– Originally prepared with Andy Ratto when we worked at St. Louis Hillel at Washington University