Yitro is the חוֹתֵן, the father-in-law of Moshe, a relationship that is reiterated and reinforced many times in the first section of this sidra. The name Yitro means abundance or riches – and truly this is what Yitro gave to Moshe. Not riches of kind, but of counsel regarding sustainability, practical counsel that would yield abundance for generations to come.
Yitro was that voice against hubris. His was the voice that continues to be heard by would-be-superwomen/supermen everywhere: “You can’t do it all; you need to get help; you need to delegate, and distribute the load. Share your power.” I am not sure we could not call Moshe, Rabbeinu, our teacher, if he hadn’t learned this lesson from Yitro.
Yitro could see that his son-in-law was being crushed under the weight of the persistent demands coming at him. Yitro said to Moshe, “Lo tov hadavar asher atah oseh” — “What you are doing is not good” (18:17). Yitro was a priest. He knew that a new infrastructure was needed.
Two things are fascinating here. 1) Why didn’t God think of this? Within days of receiving this instruction from Yitro, Moshe is being summoned to Mount Sinai to receive the Covenant from God, in one of our more panoramic moments – the receiving of the Aseret Dibrot, the Ten Utterances. This covenant is our constitution. It is the basis for how we are to live every day. Yet even as these commandments laid the foundation for an equal and democratic nation, where every Israelite should be holy and every person be as a priest, would it not have behoved God to advise Moshe of a similar infrastructure that would help him manage the day-to-day operations of this field exercise in Bamidbar? Especially given such directives.
As Chaim Weitzmann, first president of Israel, once said, “I head a nation of a million presidents.” But, maybe Moshe could hear this practical management advice from his beloved chotain, differently.
And 2) Yitro drops by, bringing his daughter Tzipporah and grandsons to Moshe and he gives Moshe the best practical advice he could receive – and then he returned to Midian. Why didn’t he stay? Surely Moshe could have used such a sage by his side. Surely Tzipporah and her sons would have loved to have their father and grandfather with them as Moshe was so preoccupied day in and day out. Why didn’t Yitro stay? He clearly acknowledged God to be like no other, and acknowledged the miracles wrought by his Hand. But Yitro knew better. He knew how to get out of the way. As parents we must learn to not hover – but to allow for mistakes, for risk, even for those moments when we see our children plotz on their faces, just as Moshe would do.
Any of us Type A’s can relate to Yitro. My best friend reminded me on Shabbat that she thinks of Yitro as my parashah! She reminded me of how she had spoken to me when she heard my plan for one Shabbat morning, many years ago. My plan was to read from Torah, chant the Haftarah, give a d’var Torah and lead the Musaf service (a grown up Bat Mitzvah, if you will). But no, it didn’t stop there. I was also going to prepare food to feed the 100 guests who would be coming to services and the subsequent Kiddush lunch that morning. And clean up. Yes.
Lindy was my Yitro. She tried mightily to release my white-fingered grip on all these elements with logic. I resisted! It was only when she said I wasn’t allowing anyone else the opportunity to share the mitzvah, to share the joy of this celebration, that I realized what I was doing. What I was doing was lo tov, not good.
I hadn’t realized how my need for control equalled selfishness. To this day, Lindy is my Yitro. Yitro is one of our most important prophets. Not
only was he our machatonim, our in-laws and family, he was our guide to devolution, to democratizing Judaism, a value we continue to uphold today. We may be a nation of presidents, but we also try bring that value of equality into all that we do. So thank you, Yitro. And thank you, Lindy.