This week, before the high drama of the Revelation at Sinai, Moses goes to school.
At the beginning of our parasha we are reintroduced to Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who meets up with the Israelites fresh from their Exodus from Egypt. Jethro (Yitro in Hebrew) was a sheik, a tribal leader in his own right. After Moses recounts everything that has happened, Jethro takes one look around and then gives Moses a clinic on religious leadership.
Usually, when looking at the lessons Jethro had for Moses, we focus on how he taught Moses to delegate: to appoint competent leaders over groups of tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands. (Ex. 18:21). However, that is not the only lesson Jethro has for Moses, or for us.
The moment Moses finishes his update, Jethro offers a blessing of gratitude to God for delivering the Israelites from Egypt, and then quickly brings forward sacrifices to express his gratitude. (Ex. 18:10 – 12)
Presumably because he was preoccupied with the many needs of the people from the moment they prepared to leave Egypt, Moses had neither blessed nor offered sacrifices to God yet. Yes, Moses praised God in the Song at the Sea, but there is something qualitatively different here. What does Jethro teach at this moment?
By offering sacrifices, Jethro demonstrates that we must pay more than lip service to God. It is our actions that matter, and now that we are out of imminent danger, we must remember to show our appreciation through deeds. We must stop, recognize and celebrate the powerful and transformative moments in our lives, and offer our thanks to heaven.
Even more, we must not limit our thanks to what we ourselves receive. Rabbi Shlomo of Radomsk (a Hassidic master who would tragically become a victim of the Holocaust) observed that the great innovation in Jethro’s blessing is that he praised God for redeeming the Israelites rather than Jethro himself. With this blessing Jethro moves us from looking to our own needs towards the needs of others.
In contemporary business-speak, Jethro demonstrates how great leaders make sure that the important doesn’t take a back seat to the urgent. The urgent is the crises of the moment; the important is what ultimately matters. The more time we devote to the important, the less we will need to deal with the urgent. The Exodus from Egypt must have been an overwhelming undertaking; it was certainly necessary and urgent. The important is why we left Egypt, and what we left Egypt for. Jethro masterfully demonstrates that, for us, the important includes cultivating a sense of gratitude and looking beyond oneself towards the needs of others.
Let’s make sure we make the time.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2015 Rabbi Gary Pokras