Exodus 18:1 – 20:2
Poor Moses. He may have been the most qualified person ever to assume the mantle of Jewish leadership, and one of the least prepared. This week, before we arrive at the base of Sinai and receive the Ten Commandments, Moses gets a lesson in leadership from his father-in-law Jethro.
Jethro is a tribal leader and a priest of Midian, who hearing about God’s great deeds in Egypt and the redemption of the Jewish people came to reunite the family. Once they settle in, he asks Moses to share what has happened, and afterwards his response is extraordinary:
And Jethro exulted over all the bounty that the Lord had done for Israel, that He had rescued them from the hand of Egypt. And Jethro said, “Blessed is the Lord, Who has rescued you from the hand of Egypt and from the hand of Pharaoh, Who rescued the people from under the hand of Egypt. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods, for in this thing that they schemed against them.” And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God, and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel with him, to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law. (Ex. 19:9-12)
Amazingly, no Israelite thought to stop to offer thanks to God before this moment. Jethro, who is not even a Jew, offers the first words of blessing and the first sacrifices of the Exodus, and he makes sure to do so with all of the collected leaders of the people. Here, Jethro offers Moses several important lessons of leadership. First, he leads by modeling leadership. Instead of criticizing or correcting Moses, he simply does what needs to be done, and Moses, Aaron and the elders line up to follow Jethro, father-in-law of Moses. Second, he models the importance of giving credit where credit is deserved. Which is to say, Jethro demonstrates through word and deed the power of leading by example and lavishing praise wherever it is deserved.
Yet there is more for Moses to learn. The next day:
… Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood over Moses from the morning, till the evening. And Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, and he said, “What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why are you sitting alone while all the people are standing over you from morning until evening?” [Ex. 18:13-14]
The next lesson? Ask before jumping to conclusions. And Jethro is only getting warmed up:
And Moses replied to his father-in-law, “For the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have some matter, it comes to me and I judge between a man and his fellow and I make known God’s statutes and His teachings.” And Moses’ father in law said to him, “This thing that you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out – both you and this people that is with you – for the thing is too heavy for you, you will not be able to do it alone. [If you do not respect your own time, nobody else will. If you burn yourself out, not only will you suffer, but also those who look to you for leadership.] Now, heed my voice – I shall give you counsel, and may God be with you. Be you for the people over against God, and it shall be you who will bring the matters to God. And you shall warn them concerning the statutes and the teachings, and you shall make known to them the way in which they must go and the deed which they must do. [Empower the people by teaching them what they need to know, be a clear communicator] As for you, you shall search out from all the people able, God-fearing men, truthful men, haters of bribes, and you place them as chiefs of thousands, chiefs of hundreds, chiefs of fifties and chiefs of tens. And they shall judge the people at all times, and every great matter they shall bring to you and every small matter they themselves shall judge, and it will lighten from upon you and will bear the burden with you. [If you want the job done right, get help – but make sure to hire the right people, people with integrity, skill and good judgement.] If you will do this thing, God will charge you and you will be able to stand and also all this people will come to its place in peace.” [Ex. 18:15-23]
Moses grew to become the greatest leader our people have ever known, but he was not born a leader. He needed to learn, and in very Torah that he transmitted from God to Israel, he shared the keys to his success … and to our own.
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