Parashat Yitro

Moses learns a lesson in management
Irwin Huberman

There once was a CEO of a major corporation whose dedication to his work and to his employees was legendary.

He would arrive at his desk at sunrise, and would not return home until well past nightfall. For the entire day he would not only attend to his own responsibilities, but would also assist his employees to navigate the pathways of their own lives.

People would come to him with not only with their own work issues, but also with their interpersonal problems. The CEO was wise and revered, and the lineup outside his office door was constant and never ending.

One day, his father’in-law, Yitro, a person of wisdom and experience, came to visit and noticed not only the long lineup, but also the physical toll it was taking on his son-in-law.

And he uttered the words, which would be forever inscribed in the corporate tradition. Yitro told his son-in-law Moses, ‘the thing you are doing is not right, for you will surely wear yourself out and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.’ (Exodus 18:17-18)

And Moses took his father-in-law’s advice to heart, and adopted a new corporate model. The CEO appointed a series of seventy assistants, who would help him judge the matters of the people, and the corporation has continued to thrive to this day.

The exchange between Moses and Yitro is often lost in the discussion of this week’s parashah. This is the section of the Torah where Israel receives the Ten Commandments. It is a pivotal moment in our history, which seals our covenant with God.

Yet the account of the giving of the Torah is preceded by a discussion of how it will be interpreted and implemented. Moses learns through his encounter with Yitro that in spite of leaders’ best intentions to work hard for those they represent, an organization is best served by sharing the load.

The subsequent model of seventy judges appointed by Moses served as the prototype for the Sanhedrin, the major organization of the Jewish judiciary which endured in one form or another well into the fourth century Common Era.

Indeed, our tradition tells us that the interpretation of Torah requires input from many backgrounds and points of view. As the midrash reminds us, ‘There are seventy faces to the Torah; Turn it around and around, for everything is in it,’ (B’midbar Rabbah 13:15).

There are so many valid ways of understanding each part of the Torah. We learn from different denominations and from many points of view.

Our commentators have made note of Yitro’s visit on many levels. Some have discussed the chronological position of this scene. The great 11th century scholar Rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra observes that its position immediately follows the ending of last week’s Torah portion where Israel is warned to beware of Amalek, the perpetual enemy of the Jewish people.

Ibn Ezra notes the fact that Yitro was not Jewish, provides a lesson that there is something to learn from people of all backgrounds, and that although there are Amaleks, there are also Yitros.

Ibn Ezra and other commentators also support the theory that the story of Yitro’s visit does not follow chronological order, that is, that it took place after the giving of the Torah, and that the method in which the Torah would be put into action was so important as to precede the giving of the Torah itself.

Yitro himself is a complex figure. Tradition places him as Moses’ father-in-law, a Midianite priest, a possible convert, and an advisor to Pharaoh. But what is most important in this passage, is his offering of calm and constructive advice to Moses.

Yitro advises Moses that we become stronger, and that our organizations and our traditions become stronger when we have the courage to delegate.

The best synagogues, businesses and community organizations are those which are overseen by people of vision, like Moses, but whose success is dependent on hard working individuals who have the ability not only to manage, but to delegate and to participate in an overall vision.For his role as an advisor to Moses, Yitro deserves great honor in our tradition.

And Moses, by virtue of his ability and willingness to take advice once again demonstrates why he is and will always be regarded as the greatest leader in our tradition.

Yitro’s advice to Moses in Exodus 18:22-23 rings as true today as it did thousands of years ago.

‘Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the 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.’


Irwin Huberman is a rabbinical student at AJR.