Advice for Moses, Advice for Life
In the portion of the Torah most celebrated for the Decalogue it includes, Moses receives wise counsel from an unexpected source. His father-in-law, Yitro, after seeing Moses sitting for long hours, judging and settling claims among the Israelites, objects to his son-in-law’s administrative style. Pointedly, he 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?” (Exodus 18:14)
Rashi, the eleventh century biblical commentator from France, expands on Yitro’s concerns:
[Moses] sat like a king and all were standing. This was troubling to Yitro because it was disregarding the honor of Israel.
Yitro expresses concern that Moses’ job is too onerous for him, and suggests a new structure in order to ease the unwieldy burden. Rashi, however, does not focus on the lightening of Moses’ load, but rather on the inherent dignity of Israel. Moses most effectively honors Israel by sharing the burden of leadership with others, by empowering them to take on positions of responsibility. Ramban, a thirteenth century Spanish commentator, reinforces Rashi’s perspective by emphasizing that the new structure would be mutually beneficial.
It is good for you and for them (Israel) to ease your burden and let them carry it with you.
How is Moses affected by this shift in the power structure? He willingly empowers others with no loss in personal stature. The very next chapter describes preparations for God’s revelation at Mount Sinai, with particular emphasis on Moses’ role as leader and intermediary. He is continually sent by God to speak to the Israelites, and sent by the Israelites to speak to God. One could say that his very ability to empower others led Moses to his greatest personal achievements.
Moses’ willingness to share responsibility for Israel’s destiny is certainly commendable. It is not surprising, however. Moses had a Master Teacher who modeled just such an approach for him. When the Israelites, fleeing from Egypt, were trapped at the Red Sea, they saw the Egyptians coming after them. Moses reassured the people that God would take care of them and fight their battle. God, however, had alternate plans.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground” (Exodus 14:15-16).
Moses had become accustomed to deferring to God, but God preferred to empower Moses to take on a greater leadership role. As they were on the border between Egypt and the wilderness, between slavery and redemption, it was necessary that Moses be a more visible leader to the Israelites. This in no way diminished God’s stature. Indeed, Israel and its prophetic leader together respond with the Song of the Sea, one of the Bible’s most beautiful expressions of the exaltation of God.
By teaching the Israelites, and by choosing strong leaders, Moses was able both to lighten his load and to show appreciation and respect for the honor of Israel. Jewish professionals today can follow this model in teaching in order to create new leaders. Empowerment through education is essential in order to maintain a strong Jewish community. Solomon Schechter followed in Moses’ footsteps when he adjured newly ordained rabbis:
Be not afraid that a universal knowledge of the Scriptures and of the important works embodying Jewish tradition and Jewish history will in any way curtail your authority… The authority that maintains itself by the ignorance of the masses is not worth having.
Schechter, like Moses, understood that exclusivity is not a trait to be sought by effective leaders. Nor does it do justice to the inherent sanctity of the Jewish community, to the “honor of Israel.” It is this lesson, learned early in his career, which allows the more seasoned Moses, while preserving his unique role in Jewish history, to pass his wisdom on to his successor: “Would that all God’s people were prophets!”
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,
Ora Horn Prouser