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.
Exodus 13:17 - 17:16
And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him; for he [Joseph] had made the sons of Israel swear, saying, "God will surely single you out; and you will carry up my bones away hence with you." (Ex. 13:19)
If the census in the book of Numbers is correct, then somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million former Israelite slaves left Egypt - and Moses was responsible for them all! Leaving must have been chaotic, to say the least: we were not yet organized by tribe, Moses had not yet assigned deputies and the clock was ticking against the possibility that Pharaoh would once again change his mind.
So I find it remarkable, in the midst of all this, that Moses made sure to personally exhume Joseph's remains for transport out of Egypt and their eventual return to the Promised Land.
Our tradition teaches that those who have died cannot thank us for our kindnesses. For that reason, the mitzvot of caring for the dead are among the highest and most important of all the commandments. Most Jewish communities have chevrei kedishah, secret societies of volunteers who wash and prepare those who have died for burial, and stand “guard” reciting Psalms so that the deceased are never left alone before the funeral. The identities of these holy volunteers are kept secret so that neither the living nor the dead can thank them for their acts of pure and loving compassion.
Moses, whose humility was made famous by the rabbis, may well have found deep personal meaning in caring for Joseph in the midst of the Exodus.
That said, I think there is another, equally compelling value at play here - operating side by side with the beauty of caring for the dead. Joseph, in predicting that God would one day bring the Israelites out from Egypt, spoke as a prophet; the promise he exacted from his brothers spoke to the importance of taking the long view. While Joseph could never thank Moses for fulfilling Joseph's dying wish, Moses' act had timely realpolitik value: Joseph's bones reminded the Israelites that they were not merely escaping servitude in Egypt, they were going home.
We would do well to take both of these lessons to heart. We should be caring and compassionate regardless of any expectation of payment or thanks, and we should remember that wherever we are, we are probably still in Egypt (at least in part) - and God is beckoning us home.
Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
What does Torah have to say about inclusiveness? The answer is found early in parashat Bo, when Pharaoh, struggling with the devastation of the plagues, begins to reconsider his obstinacy:
… And Moses and Aaron were brought again to Pharaoh: and he said to them, “Go, serve the Lord your God, but who are they that will go?” And Moses said, “We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our herds will we go; for we must hold a feast to the Lord … (Ex. 10:7-10)
The stated purpose of the Exodus (at least at this point in the narrative) is for our ancestors to “hold a feast to the Lord.” While we don’t have a detailed description of how this feast would have functioned, there would have been at least two components: offering sacrifices and sharing a meal at ‘God’s table’ (or perhaps inviting God’s presence to a shared meal at our own table). Sharing a meal is an intimate experience, and the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korbon, literally means “coming closer.” In contemporary terms, God is demanding that Pharaoh let us go so that we can become intimately closer with God.
What takes my breath away about this passage is Moses’ refusal to leave anyone behind. We cannot approach God while we leave others in bondage, oppression or pain. We cannot approach God through special privileges (as in some get to approach while others cannot). When it comes to connecting with God, we are all in this together, regardless of rank, gender or age. Over the last several decades, many of us have learned to expand our definition of inclusiveness beyond gender and age to embrace folks regardless of race, sexual orientation or developmental abilities. For this, I give thanks to God.
None of us will ever truly be free until we all are free. This is the Torah on inclusiveness. Now we must go forth and live it.
Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
From the Burning Bush to the Plagues in Egypt, Moses is forced to face and then to overcome his self-doubt. Never mind that he has just interacted with the Creator of the Universe, never mind that his eventual success is guaranteed by God over and again: Moses struggles to believe – in himself.
“And Moses spoke before the Lord, saying: ‘Behold, the Children of Israel have not hearkened to me; how then will Pharaoh hear me, and I am of uncircumcised lips?’” (Ex. 6:12)
Va’era gives us a glimpse into the making of a Jewish hero. Moses focuses on his own shortcomings, and on his initial failure. He sees himself as unfit for the task. After all, how can he be God’s spokesman with a speech impediment (uncircumcised lips)? How can he convince Pharaoh if the Israelites themselves won’t listen?
God’s answer is as simple as it is true. To paraphrase, God tells Moses to ‘get back in there’ and provides specific instructions about what to do and details ways that God will help. In other words, if we let our fear of failure drive our decisions, then we will surely fail. If we look at the obstacles before us and seek solutions to overcome them, we will surely succeed. If we keep ourselves focused on the end goal, then every failure along the way is a necessary lesson along our path to eventual success. God may not use these specific words, but this is exactly what Torah teaches over the course of the entire Exodus narrative.
As the inheritors of this precious tradition, we can recognize ourselves in this story. Whatever our self-doubts may be, we can follow Moses’ lead: with clarity of vision and with God’s help, anything is possible.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras