Parashat Yitro: Linking Leadership and the Ten Commandments

Posted on February 2, 2024 by Steve Lieberman

This week’s Torah portion is perhaps the most well-known portion and contains the most powerful and influential writings of any aspect of our Jewish religion and tradition. It is, of course, Parashat Yitro which recounts the giving of the Ten Commandments. While it is beyond my capabilities to impart some new insight into the lessons we can learn from reading, a review of the commentary on this parashah can uncover some tidbits of knowledge that might have not been readily apparent on first reading.

When the rabbis sectioned off the Torah into 54 weekly readings, they had the flexibility to decide where each week’s reading would begin and where it would end. One would think that the events surrounding the giving of the Ten Commandments – the accompanying thunder and lightning, the blaring of trumpets – would be enough to have this parashah stand on its own.

To herald the coming of the Ten Commandments, the rabbis did not start the weekly portion at the base of Mt Sinai as Moses prepared to go up to receive them. Rather, the parashah starts a bit earlier, with a visit by Jethro (or Yitro in Hebrew), Moses’ father-in-law, to the Israelites desert encampment. The parashah begins with the word Yitro, thereby forever naming this monumental section after a non-Jew. An accident that no one realized? I think not. Since nothing written in the Torah was placed there by accident or as filler, we need to look at why this portion begins with Yitro visiting his son-in-law.

Yitro visits with his grandchildren in tow but he is not content to sit out his remaining years as the family patriarch enjoying quality time with his grandchildren. No, upon arriving at the encampment, he sees Moses spending his entire day judging and deciding disputes that have arisen. He wisely recognizes that this is taking a great toll on Moses and detracts from allowing Moses to fulfill his more important function of being the emissary between God and the Israelites.

Thus, one of the first things Yitro does is to counsel Moses that he needs to appoint, from among the Israelites, people of integrity and honesty who will judge fairly.

And in judging fairly, what are the components of such a decision? We need not look further than what comes next in the reading. A belief in the righteousness of God, that one should not swear falsely, that one should not bear false witness, that one should not commit crimes against another. In sum, the moral guidance set out in the Ten Commandments.

Issues of leadership and the teachings of the Ten Commandments were not linked by accident. The Ten Commandments express God’s expectations that the Jewish people must follow for all time. Leaders are to lead honestly, and with compassion. Why do I say compassion? You will recall that the portion opens with Yitro coming to see Moses, along with Moses’ wife Zipporah and their two sons, Eliezer and Gershom, and the Torah provides a translation of Gershom’s name: “I have been a stranger in a strange land.” Just as God showed compassion for the Israelites in freeing them from bondage, a society needs to be created and led by those who show similar compassion to all its inhabitants.

There cannot be a gap between leadership and the values that a society espouses. These must work hand-in-hand. Leaders implement our values for the benefit of all.

The Ten Commandments were not given so they would only guide the actions of Jews. The teachings are universal. The Ten Commandments were not given once the Israelites reached the homeland of Israel so one could argue that they were designed only to be followed within its border. No, rather, they were given in the desert, an area belonging to no one people or nation. We are also told that those gathered at Mt Sinai included the generations yet to be born so that we all, too, would hear these words. These commandments were given in a place no could call home and are found in a portion named for a non-Jew. What more can be needed to show that they were meant to be universal truths, belonging not to a few but to everyone?

While Moses was caught up in the idea that only he could solve the daily problems facing the Israelites, we learn that the real strength of leadership comes from listening, sharing, and working together to achieve a common goal. Society gains when leaders, instead of being focused on their own individual pursuits, have the courage and humility to recognize when change is needed and the wisdom to follow wise counsel.

May those who choose to lead us and are in a position of power act accordingly.

 

Steve Lieberman

Guest Service Leader