Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)
As a rabbi and organizer for social justice, the past 15 months have been a moral nightmare and an organizer’s dream come true. As our government increasingly hurts communities of color, poor people, and religious minorities, thousands of concerned citizens—of diverse backgrounds—are coming out of the woodwork, eager to fight back. Many are entering the political fray for the first time.
For years, leaders in the PICO/Faith in Action national organizing network, where I am privileged to work, have dreamed about bringing our faith-based organizing efforts to scale. And yet, when thousands of new people appeared in November 2016, we weren’t ready. We agreed on the scope of the problems, but at least on the local level, we did not yet have the infrastructure to launch a sustained response on the scale our increased numbers now made possible. We still have masses of people showing up for rallies and actions, but we do not have a way to absorb them into our organizations, to offer sufficient training, and build the necessary relationships to enable us to act together effectively.
Today, what we need is prophetic leadership and decentralization. We need powerful shared strategy, but we also need a way that people can act independently with one another, linked through common training and strategy but not held back by a requirement that everyone coordinate or get permission from people at the center. As I am learning, decentralizing leadership requires not only infrastructure and training, but also a deep trust that people CAN take leadership, that our movements will be stronger when we give power to lots of imperfect people with their hearts in the right place.
Personally, even though I have dedicated my life to grassroots organizing and believe deeply in being led by those closest to the problems, I find aspects of decentralization terrifying. I like having clear plans and some modicum of control—but decentralization requires that we trade control for diffusion of power and the increased possibility of winning justice and dignity for all.
Amidst this process of sharing more power and increasing the scale of our justice work, this week’s Torah portion has felt like an answered prayer.
Parashat Yitro tells the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments from Mt. Sinai. Before this central moment in our people’s story, the Torah reports a meeting between Moses and his father-in-law Yitro (Jethro), a priest of Midian. Amidst the drama of the Exodus story—the plagues, the sea splitting, the Ten Commandments—the Torah devotes a great deal of parchment to the story of how Yitro schools Moses in delegation and decentralization.
At the opening of the Torah portion, Moses is stretched thin, trying to do everything himself. The people line up before him from morning till evening, and Moses attempts to resolve their disputes one at a time, with God’s help. Enter Yitro, who gives Moses some sage advice.
Yitro says to Moses:
What are you doing?!
The thing you are doing is not right:
you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well.
For the task is too heavy for you, you cannot do it alone….
Teach them God’s decrees and instructions…
But select capable men from all the people—
men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—
and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.
Have them serve as judges for the people at all times,
but have them bring every difficult case to you;
the simple cases they can decide themselves.
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 survive (lit. stand up);
and all these people too will go home unwearied.
In this passage, Yitro advises Moses to share his work by creating a multi-tiered judicial system and selecting capable men to serve as its judges. Yitro’s system encourages people from across the Israelite ranks to act largely independently, except in the most difficult cases. For someone who has grown in the palace and then had autonomy over his flocks, this model of distributed leadership is likely new to Moses.
Yitro’s advice is not only about efficiency. He is also teaching Moses a deep lesson in leadership, humility, and trust.
If you do this – and God so commands you – you will be able to stand up.
Before God can trust the Jewish people with the Ten Commandments, Moses and the Israelites must be able to stand up. And what it means to stand up is to stand supported, not weighed down by a burden too great for any one person to bear. Yitro teaches that we can only be ready to stand before God when we stand supported and stand together.
But standing together is hard. At least at first, it can seem so much easier to work on our own. Trusting other people to share our burdens is scary and messy. Sometimes these other people fail, or challenge us, or attempt to take all the credit.
Yet, at this critical point in our story, at a moment when we are about to hear the voice of the One God, Yitro teaches us that we must involve more voices in leadership, share more responsibility, expose ourselves to more messiness and diversity.
As Rabbi Melissa Weintraub teaches, the name Yitro comes from the word Yeter, “that something more that we encounter in the face of the other… the revelation of what lies beyond us and urges us on to new understanding.”
By following Yitro’s guidance, Moses and his leaders transform themselves from ex-slaves into Receivers of Torah.
As we strive to create a more just world, may we be blessed with the wisdom and humility to listen to voices beyond ourselves, the courage to share our work and our power, and the faith that revelation comes when we open ourselves to each other and to God.
 Much of my thinking on decentralization and absorption comes from Momentum Institute, www.momentumcommunity.org.
Rabbi Margie Klein Ronkin, Rab`11, serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Sha’arei Shalom in Ashland, Mass., and as Director of Clergy and Leadership Development for the Essex County Community Organization, an affiliate of Massachusetts Communities Action Network and the PICO/Faith in Action National Network. A graduate of Yale and Hebrew College Rabbinical School, she is the founder of Moishe Kavod House in Boston, a community of more than 600 Jews in their 20s and 30s dedicated to tikkun olam. She is a co-editor of Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice (Jewish Lights) and has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, and on CNN.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson is Dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.