Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Human Leadership?

Parshat Yitro
Shmot 18:1 – 20:23
18 Shevat 5772 / Feb. 10 – 11, 2012

Human Leadership?
by Barrie Schwartz, MH New Orleans

This week’s Parsha, Parshat Yitro, begins with Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law coming to visit Moshe and the People of Israel after they have crossed over the Red Sea. Yitro, observing how hard Moshe is working and micro managing the people of Israel, suggests that Moshe set up a system of judges. Moshe listens to his father-in-law and sets up a system within the People of Israel. Following this chapter, God gives the People of Israel the Ten Commandments. The first section of this week’s parsha is sandwiched between two very distinct and important moments for the people of Israel; the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the commandments at Mt. Sinai.

While reading the Parsha I could not help but analyze the juxtaposition in the chapters between people vs. God. Yitro’s suggestions both through words, and later Moshe’s actions bring up important points valuing human development and leadership. Yet, he and the People of Israel are constantly throughout the chapters praising God and the things that he has done for the People of Israel.

In the onset of the Parsha, Yitro says, “"Blessed be the Lord who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods, yes, by the result of their very schemes against [the people]." (18:11-12) Yitro’s words are praising the Lord for single handedly delivering the People of Israel from the Egyptians.

Closely following Yitro’s praise for the Lord he observes Moshe’s leadership:

Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. But when Moses' father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, "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?" (18:14 – 15).

Yitro is constructively reviewing Moses ineffective leadership style. Here he acknowledges the power of all people, and the fault in acting alone. Is this the earliest sign of leadership consulting? Why is it important that Moshe act as an effective leader if God alone will always fix the situation that the People of Israel are in?

Yitro continues with his advice:

Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes 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 with you. If you do this — and God so commands you — you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied." (Exodus, 18:20 – 24).

It is here that the system of judges is set up. Moses cannot act alone as a messenger between the People of Israel and God. People need to work together in order to create a functioning and orderly community. Yet, before Yitro there was no effective way for Moshe to communicate to everyone. Also, it is important that chronologically Yitro’s advice happens before the Ten Commandments are given to the People of Israel.

Yitro’s advice, as well as the relationship between people and God, applies to the modern world. If the Jewish people acted as if God would take care of all things, would we be where we are today? Human initiative, community, and proper leadership allow us to function in today’s modern world. Individual Jews have the power to think about God’s relationship and role in the universe. Individuals and communities need to find systems that work for them.

The Parsha ends with Moses calming the fears of God that the People of Israel have, “Moses answered the people, ‘Be not afraid; for God has come only in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray.’ So the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was. It is with this ending sentiment the People of Israel are left with before they receive the Ten Commandments - that the fear of God should forever be with them as to not stray. This ambiguous statement leaves room for human leadership, innovation, and society. Yet, we must always have God in our minds as we set up our own systems. To me this sentiment leaves loose ties and confusion, what do you think?


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