Negotiating personal and professional boundaries is one of the greatest challenges facing working individuals today. We live in a world that prizes productivity over patience and boundless devotion over definitive limits. Store hours lengthen, the banking week extends, and slowly work overtakes one’s life. Given this reality, Judaism is countercultural. It is a system of belief that places boundaries on one’s behavior. Indeed, eating, sex, and economic pursuits are all limited by sacred structures (kashrut, taharat ha–mishpaha [laws of family purity], and Shabbat, respectively). What is striking is that too often, we fail to recognize the need to set limits to our behaviors; classically, it takes an outsider to focus our attention toward constructive criticism. Parashat Yitro gives us just such a lesson in placing healthy boundaries on our working selves.
After partaking of a feast with his father–in–law, Jethro, Moses sits in judgment amongst the people. Torah explains, “The people stood about Moses from morning until evening” (Exodus 18:13). Moses has established himself as a true leader amongst the Israelites. And now, he has become the victim of his own success. As a result of failing to establish clear and workable boundaries for himself, he opens himself to the potential for prophetic “burn–out.” Thankfully though, it is Jethro, Jewish history’s first “corporate consultant,” who helps Moses to change the dynamic.
We are told that Jethro “saw” Moses in action; in other words, he quietly observed his conscientious son–in–law at work. Only afterwards does he issue his critique in the form of a question: “What is this thing that you are doing to the people?” (Exodus 18:14). Jethro’s question forces Moses to be reflective; he is compelled to turn inward. In classic leadership mode, Moses recognizes the burden before him, namely that the people are coming to him to seek God, and he is their decisor for both large and small decisions. After hearing this response, Jethro wisely proposes a plan for success: Moses will appoint talented assistants who will judge the common cases while Moses will continue adjudicating the major disputes.
Jethro’s strategy is masterful, and Moses’ ability to listen and change is commendable. As the noted commentator of Torah Benno Jacob writes, “Moses followed Jethro’s advice as he recognized the old stranger’s superior wisdom in organizational matters” ( Benno Jacob, Exodus, 501). May we learn from the many lessons this parashah has to offer (1) to be open to the work of knowledgeable consultants, (2) to be deliberate and sensitive in our critique as Jethro does so meaningfully, and (3) like Moses, to have the gumption to open our hearts and souls to the possibility of change. None of us is indispensable in the work we do. A healthy balance in one’s life leads to a healthy soul. May Moses’ success in bringing more balance to his life be an inspiration for every professional who is wrestling with this very important issue.
The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.