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Parashat Yitro

January 22, 2008

The Makings of a Great Leader
Hayley Siegel

In Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 1:10, our teachers Shemayah and Avtalyon teach, ‘Do not become overly familiar with the government.’ Indeed, our rabbis probably could never have imagined an election season quite like this one!

With groundbreaking candidates, including an African-American, a female, a Mormon, and a Jewish candidate (possibly) running in the 2008 Presidential election, who wouldn’t want to pay attention to this year’s primaries and campaigns?! With the myriad ads, speeches, and publicity events flashing before our overwhelmed eyes, it can be difficult to separate the truth from the hype. Luckily for us, Moses’ creation of the first Israelite government in Parashat Yitro gives us the perfect opportunity to gain insight into the qualities we should take into account when we elect leaders for our government.

In last week’s parashah, B’Shalah, we read of the tribe’s dramatic escape from Egypt. The Israelites finally tasted the sweetness of freedom after witnessing the dividing of the Sea of Reeds. However, in Parashat Yitro, it is the tribe which appears to be splitting in half! As Moses struggles to judge all the disputes brought by the tribe, Jethro (Yitro) realizes that his young son-in-law has become overwhelmed with his responsibilities. In Exodus 18: 21-23, Jethro advises Moses to select individuals who will help run the tribe with him:

And you shall discern from among the entire people, men of accomplishment, God fearing people, men of truth, people who despise money, and you shall appoint them leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens. They shall judge the people at all times, and they shall bring every major matter to you, and every minor they shall judge’ and they shall bear with you.

As we decipher Jethro’s guidance to Moses, we see that Jethro excludes one gender from serving on the tribunal. However, while Jethro did have a gender-restricted conception of leadership, he wanted Moses to search high and low ‘among the entire people’ for the next leaders of the tribe. This phrase reminds us of the opportunities which all Americans are accorded within our own society. All of the 2008 Presidential candidates come from different backgrounds, and the diversity of these candidates strengthens our political system.

Jethro encouraged Moses to select individuals who would not become financially influenced or egotistically bloated from their wealthy connections. Today, many Americans share Jethro’s concerns over the influence of ‘special interest’ groups, corporations, and lobbyists upon our politicians. As we go to the polls, we should do our research to become aware of any candidate who has the power to be a person of ‘accomplishment’ without hurting others on the way.

Jethro advises Moses to select an individual who ‘fears God,’ reminding us of the thin line between prayer and politics. In today’s world, it is almost mandatory for a candidate to visit some religious institution during the campaign. The endorsement of a religious leader can often make or break a candidate’s chances. However, while many of our 2008 choices have expressed a belief in a higher power, Parashat Yitro reminds us to be on the lookout for a person who proclaims strong religious convictions, but seems to violate them when away from the spotlight, and to beware of an individual who has ‘convenient’ piety when surrounded by certain groups of people.

While Jethro spends the beginning part of the parashah telling Moses what he should look for in a leader, Jethro, himself, becomes an example of leadership. As a priest of Midian, Jethro was not part of mainstream Israelite society, and he had no intention of assuming any leadership role within the Israelite fold. In a society where Democrats, Republicans, and Independents lock horns over just about every issue, Jethro teaches us that our leaders must be willing to work with others who do not reflect their mirror image and that we should search for leaders who will look to the left, right, or even sideways, to bring tikkun (repair) to our world.

In our time, complaining about the government can often turn into a ‘spectator sport’ with everyone looking for their turn to play. Parashat Yitro reminds us that change can only happen when we take the time and effort to select the best leaders to run our country. After Moses follows through with his father-in-law’s instructions and selects individuals to run the tribe, a pivotal moment in the Torah occurs. With order and coherence instated, the tribe receives the Torah from HaShem at Mount Sinai and listens to the recitation of the famous Aseret Ha-Dibrot (Ten Commandments). During our upcoming primary and our election day to come, let us be mindful of Jethro’s example and make a concerted effort to survey the middot (qualities) of our future candidates and participate to our fullest extent within the democratic process. Let us follow in Jethro’s example by electing for ourselves the leaders of our lives, so that we can bring our best judgments and intentions to all those close to our hearts.

Hayley Siegel is a rabbinical student at AJR.