Parashat Yitro 5783

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Yitro
By Rabbi Greg Schindler (’09)


“She generally gave herself very good advice (although she very seldom followed it)”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

How good are you at taking advice?

I know that I could use a lot of work in this department, especially when it comes to unsolicited advice. If someone starts a sentence with, “I think you should”, I often nod my head appreciatively… and tune out.

This seems to be a part of human nature. According to research, people generally start out with a personal bias towards their own opinions, and discount the advice of others.

Most of us feel like the Duchess in Alice: “If everybody minded their own business ..the world would go round a deal faster than it does.”

Perhaps to counteract this bias, our tradition is replete with advice about taking advice:

In Pirkei Avot 4:1, we read, “Who is wise? One who learns from all people.”

Further, Pirkei Avot 1:6 instructs us to “acquire a friend.”

Rabbeinu Yonah says that one of the chief reasons we need such a friend is “regarding advice that he can take, that he be ‘one who arouses (a counsellor) for help’ in all of his affairs and to take good counsel from him.’”

Proverbs 20:18 tells us: “Every purpose is established by counsel.”

(And we know that, as the Mock Turtle said, “No wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise.”)

In the prayers that we recite each evening, we say:

וְתַקְּ֒נֵֽנוּ בְּעֵצָה טוֹבָה “Raise us up with good counsel”.

And yet, taking advice is a rabbit hole many of us would prefer not to go down.

What determines our receptivity to advice?

It may depend on the answer to the Caterpillar’s question: “Who are you?”

In 2012, researchers designed several experiments to weight the influence of power dynamics in decision making. People who perceived themselves as possessing high power were less open to advice than people with perceived low power. This was true even when the advice came from an expert. The researchers concluded that:

“High power people feel competitive when exposed to advice from experts and that these feelings of competition lead them to inflate their confidence and underweight experts’ advice.” (I think we have all seen this on a personal, as well as national, scale.)

This is not a new phenomenon. When Moses warns Pharaoh about the upcoming plague of locusts, Pharaoh’s advisers tell him,

“How long will this one be a stumbling block to us? Let the people go and they will worship their G-d. Don’t you yet know that Egypt is lost?” (Exod. 10:6).

But high and mighty Pharaoh refuses to listen.

It doesn’t always have to be this way. When Joseph is brought out of prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, he tells Pharaoh about the seven good years followed by seven lean years. But Joseph doesn’t stop at dream interpretation; he also offers advice:

“Let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt…[to] gather all the food during the good years and store it.” (Gen. 41:33-35)

Such hutzpah from this young Hebrew prisoner! How does Pharaoh respond? “Off with his head!?”

No. He puts Joseph in charge. (Gen. 41:37)

In this week’s parasha, Moses is at the top of his game. He has successfully brought the slaves out of Egypt (with great wealth, to boot!), crossed the Sea of Reeds, witnessed Pharaoh and his pursuing army washed away, announced the six-days-a-week manna delivery, brought water from a rock, and fought off Amalek. Oh, and now everyone is camped at the Mountain of G-d awaiting this little thing we like to call the “Revelation at Sinai.” If, as we read previously, “Moses was very great in the eyes of Pharaoh’s’ servants and the people” (Exod. 11:3), then imagine how he appears now!

Here enters the namesake of this week’s Torah portion – Moses’ father-in-law Yitro – bringing back Moses’ wife and children from Midian. The next day, Yitro watches as Moses sits and judges the people from morning until night.

Yitro questions his son-in-law’s behavior:

“What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone (לְבַדֶּ֔ךָ), while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” (Exod. 18:14)

Moses replies:

“It is because the people come to me to inquire of G-d. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one party and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of G-d.” (Exod. 18:15-16)

But Yitro is not persuaded, saying:

“The thing you are doing is not good (לֹא־טוֹב֙)… you cannot do it alone ( לְבַדֶּֽךָ ).”

Hmmm, something about this sounds familiar: “Not good ( לֹא־טוֹב֙ )” and “alone ( לְבַדֶּֽךָ )”.

Where have we heard those words together before?

Back in the Garden of Eden, when there was but a single Human and G-d said:

“It is not good ( לֹא־ט֛וֹב ) for the Human to be alone (לְבַדּ֑וֹ).” (Gen. 2:18)

What is G-d’s solution to this problem? “I will make a helpmate with him.” (ibid).

Yitro continues:

“Now listen to me. I will give you counsel.” (These are the magic words that often cause my ears to close!) “Seek out, from among all the people, capable individuals… let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you.” (Exod. 18:19-22)

Just like G-d in the Garden of Eden, Moses is advised to make helpers for himself.

How does Moses react to this unsolicited advice?

Moses, as we said, is at the top of his game. People line up from dawn to dusk to have an audience with him. His Instagram account is blowing up! If anyone were ever in a position of high power that would cause them to ignore unsolicited advice, it would be him.

But then he wouldn’t be Moses.

“Moses heeded his father-in-law, and did just as he had said.” (Exod. 18:24)

What enables Moses to put aside ego and accept good advice?

While everyone else may have viewed Moses as possessing high power and status, that was not how he viewed himself:

“Now Moses was very humble, more so than any other human being on earth.” (Num. 12:3)

If Moses could take advice, then shouldn’t we?

So the next time someone says, “I think you should…”, let’s try to remember the example of Moses our Teacher.

But, of course, that’s only my advice.

Shabbat Shalom


Rabbi Greg Schindler received semikha in 2009 (5769). While at AJR, he was honored to serve as President of the Student Association. He is a community rabbi in Westport, CT where he conducts classes in Talmud and Tanakh. He has led Children’s High Holiday services for over 20 years. Each year, he writes and directs a new Yom Kippur comedic play based on the Book of Jonah , including “Jonah-gan’s Island”. “Batmensch”, “SpongeJonah SquarePants”, “Horton Hears an Oy” and more.