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Self-care and Leading the Way to Freedom

Minna BrombergParashat Yitro, Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

I closed the bathroom door behind me — as if the bathroom, with its full complement of dirty diapers and small piles of unwashed clothes, was some kind of haven from the rest of the house’s chaos. I was on the verge of tears and wondering, as I know many new parents do, just what the hell I had gotten myself into. A silent wail rose in my mind, “How am I ever going to manage?!?”

And then a different inner voice piped up, a voice I hear only rarely, a voice whose origins I have given up on discerning. “You won’t,” said that other voice flatly, the one I have learned that it’s dangerous for me to disregard. “You won’t ever completely ‘manage.’ You are actually going to have to lead.”

Leave it to my subconscious (or my God-consciousness or whatever this voice is) to suddenly start sounding like a leadership consultant right there in my bathroom. By itself, this insight that there is a difference between managing and leading is not actually so insightful. Google “managing versus leading” and you get a whole pile of articles on “The Ten Differences Between Managing and Leading”—not to be confused with “The Eight Differences Between Managing and Leading,” or the other pile of articles on “how to tell if you are managing or leading.”

I’d prefer to think of that inner voice in that moment as my “inner Yitro.” Toward the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, watches as Moses tries to manage the needs of the people. The people come to Moses with their questions and disputes, standing on line all day waiting their turn as he sits and adjudicates. Yitro observes all this and soon tells Moses that this system is unsustainable: “What you are doing is not good. Both you and this people that is with you will become completely worn out, because this is too much for you and you can’t do it alone” (Exodus 18:18).

The wisdom of knowing that I will not actually be able to get by with simply managing –focusing on accomplishing tasks — but will also have to see the bigger picture, allows me to pause as I scurry around, trying to catch up with meeting everyone else’s needs. It allows me to have mindful moments when I can enjoy what is happening, even as things get temporarily messier. I can be delighted and laugh with her when my eleven-month-old discovers how fun it is to splash her bath water all over by lifting her deliciously chubby legs straight up in the air and slamming them back down while shrieking. If I’m only trying to manage, I’ll only see the water on the floor as one more thing to clean up; talk about throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Yitro instructs Moses to set up a whole system to delegate his adjudication work to “rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.” They will deal with the simple cases themselves and bring only the difficult ones to Moses. True leadership is always about the big picture, and Yitro is very clear that this is not just prudent, but a matter of life and death. If Moses does as his father-in-law advises, he will be able to endure, and he will allow his people to “go to its place in peace.” This delegating, this adding of other hands to the project of caring for the needs of the people, is not only about efficiency or fairness to the people — though it is certainly about those. It is also about the primacy of the caring leader caring for himself too. His worn-out-ness doesn’t serve the people’s needs. This too is part of the “big picture”—attending to what we each need in order to exercise leadership.

Yitro isn’t saying that there’s something wrong with Moses’ character that needs to change; he’s recommending healthy action. Self-care is not self-improvement; at times, nearly the opposite is true. Self-care so often means valuing the self you have right now in this very moment. It requires us to care for precisely who we are, not who we wish we were, honoring both our specific limits and our specific needs. For Moses, self-care meant delegating to leaders of hundreds and leaders of fifties; for me, it means finding reliable and decent childcare, and even scheduling regular pedicures.

An additional point about leadership that I’ve gleaned from more business-oriented definitions of managing and leading is that, while management happens based on our role in a given system, leadership can come from anywhere in the system. This feels all the more important to remember these days, when so many of us are trying so hard to care not only for ourselves and our families, but for our whole troubled world. Yes, this is overwhelming, and no, we won’t be able to (only) manage; we are, all of us, actually going to have to find ways to lead.

Our leadership will be sustainable only if we also attend to our own limits and our own needs. With some bumps in the road, Yitro’s lesson served Moses for the whole forty years of leading the people on their wandering. May we, too, find ways to sustain ourselves and each other, no matter how long and hard our journey to “freedom land.”

Minna Bromberg is a singer, songwriter, rabbi, and voice teacher who lives in Jerusalem with her husband, Rabbi Alan Abrams, and their daughter. Believing that singing both demands and teaches an integration of body, mind, and spirit, Minna teaches voice to rabbis, rabbinical students, and lay people who use their voices in leading prayer. Ordained in 2010 at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, she currently runs the school’s Year-in-Israel Program for rabbinical students.

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