Our parsha this week, Yitro, refers to Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, and it offers us a small glimpse into Moses’ personal life after having led so many Israelites through the wilderness. In our parsha, Jethro arrives and tells Moses that he has arrived with Moses’ wife, Zipporah, and their two sons. If the fact the fact that Moses was married comes as a surprise to you, don’t worry. It would have been easy to forget the existed since Moses had apparently sent her back to stay with his father-in-law while he, you know, sent plagues, split the sea, and marched an army of 600,000 out of Egypt. So, he was busy.
After seeing each other, we witness a lovely interaction wherein Moses tells Jethro all the things that he has been through and all the wonders Adonai has performed. One can only imagine the pride Jethro must have felt for his son-in-law. This guy: not a doctor, not a lawyer, but a prophet of God. So proud!
The next day, Jethro gets to see Moses in his element. He observes Moses as magistrate – a civil judge – dealing with the Israelites various issues from morning until evening. This judging and arbitrating has apparently become Moses’ full-time job. After observing this, Jethro, an outside eye, asks Moses, “What is this thing you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” In other words, he tells Moses, “You work too much. What, Mr. Bigshot, you don’t have an assistant? What’s all this nonsense you’re doing?”
Moses replies, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.”
“I’m the CEO. I’ve got work to do with all these people. I manage them!”
And then, friends, we have a wonderful ancient example of someone’s in-laws offering long-winded, unsolicited advice: a great precedent set throughout Jewish culture and history. Jethro says:
The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out; all these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. 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 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 that 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.
Now, besides the stereotype of the overbearing in-law, this is actually a pretty cool interaction. Jethro provides constructive criticism, and then some friendly advice. And Moses accepts this unsolicited advice, offering us a model of what can be productive and open communication between a son-in-law and his father-in-law. Importantly, remember that Jethro is not an Israelite but actually a Midianite Priest. So, at the very least, he’s in the business. More notably, however, he’s an outsider. And it is the advice of a Midianite Priest, the outsider, that saves Moses and makes him the successful prophet who sets up a system of judges that will inspire future Jewish generations in the ways of community and justice.
I love this story! I love that Moses, who is an established, respected, almost divine-like leader, is going about his business not realizing that there is a better way for everyone. He doesn’t realize this until someone with fresh eyes, a different perspective, comes in and provides sound advice. Remember, Jethro watched Moses for one day and was able to pinpoint, not necessarily a flaw in what Moses was doing but rather, a solution to a problem Moses did not even see.
It wasn’t Aaron who saw this problem, or the Israelites, or even God! They were all just ingrained in a system that was, seemingly, working. The old way was fine. It’s the way Moses did it. It’s the way it had been done since Moses guided the Israelites out of Egypt. What was wrong with it? The truth is, it seemed to work, or maybe it worked at one point when there were less problems, but Moses had lost perspective of how this problem of too many minor disputes could affect him. And imagine that, Jethro, a stranger, someone who walked in just earlier that day, someone who had nothing to do with the Israelite tribe, someone who just learned about what Moses had done in Egypt, this is the person who observes, comments, and encourages change. And Moses says, “sounds good, let’s give it a try!”
Now, you and I both know that there would be some leaders who would react differently than Moses. They might sneer to their friends and say, “Can you believe the Chutzpah on this guy? He walks in after one day and tells me, Moses, how to run my arbitration? Who does he think he is?”
Others might say, “Well maybe, but you’re new Jethro. Maybe you should get the lay of the land before you start telling me and other important people how to improve? After all, you weren’t with us when we split the sea and walked through it. You weren’t with us when we had no water to drink and I hit a rock and water came out. By the way, have you heard of how awesome I am?”
What would have been the result? Content in their comfortable but flawed and outdated system, the Israelites would have stuck up their noses and continued, causing unneeded stress and anxiety for Moses and for the Israelites. And Jethro? He would have likely left feeling humiliated, inexperienced, and silly for trying to help.
Change. Countries, businesses, people, synagogues. Most of us naturally resist change because we crave stability. We don’t just crave it; we sometimes hold onto it for dear life to keep us from experiencing stress. We desire longevity, that the traditions set forth by us will continue on from generation to generation. As Jessica Yubas of Capa Consulting Group writes:
The default reaction…is to resist change, because change represents uncertainty, uncertainty is scary, and uncertainty can threaten the survival of a species (or business). As a result, businesses tend to adopt the stance that ‘any change, any innovation, any risk at all would lead to some terrible outcome,’ and, as such, they treat ‘everything that’s new…as a threat, nothing is an opportunity.’
And what is the true outcome of not changing? Statistically, more businesses fail when they don’t adopt changes than when they do. Synagogues, and yes, people, too. And when we hear that voice of the outsider, the newbie, our natural reaction is to resist. It is our fear of the unknown, the fear that the ground beneath us will shift and leave us unsteady.
The interaction between Moses and Jethro, however, teaches us to be generous in our reception of change or innovation. Whereas our natural instinct may be to rebuff constructive criticism or suggestions (solicited or unsolicited), Moses teaches us to be open minded, and to listen. In the face of change, many of us have a fight or flight mentality. We either shut down before we even see the possibility, or we run once the possibility is apparent. Moses, however, teaches us the middle ground. If we can train ourselves not to be so afraid when change makes itself known, we can hear, truly hear, what possibilities exist with that change. A truly open mind will allow us to make the best decision possible. And sure, sometimes the decision might be that change isn’t good in that particular instance, but at least that decision is an educated one, not a fight or flight one.
In our modern lives, we receive an onslaught of feedback on a daily basis. Some of it we explicitly desire (like wearing a fitbit and wanting to know exactly how many steps you’ve taken or how “well” you slept, and some of it unsolicited (like the quality of your work or a new style you’re trying out). I want each of you, in the next week, to try and be more cognizant of how you react to that feedback. What effect does receiving feedback (positive and, especially, negative) have on the quality of your life? Notice whether you are more of a fight or flight personality, or whether it changes based on the type of feedback you are receiving. And then, do your best to channel your inner Moses. In the moments when you aren’t trying to split the sea or, in my case, convince a toddler to actually wear clothes to preschool, practice active listening without fear. Like Moses and the Israelites of old, such a strategy may actually leave you feeling liberated.