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Ask Someone Else. Be Someone Else.

February 14, 2020

This week’s d’var Torah on Parashat Yitro.

A couple of years ago, Temple Sholom in Cincinnati started putting out a series of artfully done, well-produced comedy videos about what it’s like to run a synagogue. One you are likely familiar with is “The Little Table,” which lampoons temple bureaucracy by showing the painstaking process through which the board and staff decide to add a little table to the foyer of the building.

As I considered this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, in which Moses’ father-in-law urges him to delegate some of his judicial responsibilities, I was reminded (by my colleague Rabbi Rebecca Reice) of the Temple Sholom video called “Be Someone Else.”

“Be Someone Else” is set up like a human-interest story for the six o’clock news. A reporter is interviewing the hero(ine) of synagogue life, a dedicated volunteer called Someone Else. Because no one in the staff or leadership has the time, energy, or desire to perform certain functions, leadership delegates them to Someone Else. Someone Else sets up the oneg, reorganizes the temple library, stacks chairs, and moves prayer books. She chairs committees, donates to funds, and is ultimately tasked with writing a strategic plan for the synagogue’s future. Someone Else sets up camp on the floor of an out-of-the-way room so that no one will notice she’s there or have to thank her. Rabbi Miriam Terlinchamp quips that in some synagogues, this tireless volunteer goes by I Did It Last Time or I Have To Be Home By Five.

It’s funny because it’s true. But in this week’s Torah portion, we learn that sometimes, we really do need to ask Someone Else to help us.

In parshat Yitro, as we prepare to receive the Ten Commandments at Sinai, Moses has an unexpected visitor: his father-in-law, Jethro. Jethro brings along Moses’ wife, Tzipporah, and his two sons, Gershom and Eliezar. Unspoken here are the words, “Hey, you forgot these!”

moses and tzipporah disney
Moses, Jethro, and Tzipporah in the Disney version.

Jethro and Moses break bread and catch up. Jethro is so impressed by the tale of the Israelites’ miraculous redemption from Egypt that, even though he is a Midianite priest, he offers praise to the Hebrew God, both verbally and with a burnt offering.

The next morning, we discover that Jethro is less impressed with Moses’ leadership style. Moses sits as a magistrate from morning to evening, adjudicating cases and settling disputes between the Israelites all day long. Moses is trying to do everything himself. And Jethro, a leader in his own community, sees that Moses is headed for some serious burnout. Several midrashim suggest that Jethro confronts Moses because he has abandoned his wife and children, and Jethro doesn’t want them to be neglected any further (Mekhilta De Rabbi Ishmael Amalek, Exodus Rabbah 27:2). He says to Moses:

“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. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow. You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute 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 bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied” (Exodus 18:17-23).

Jethro worries not only about Moses wearing out, but also about wearing out the people, who must have to wait in long lines in the hot sun to have their disputes settled. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra points out that the phrase used for “you will surely wear yourself out,” navol tivol, uses the same verb that describes God confounding the speech of the people who built the Tower of Babel. He says, “Your speech is confused trying to answer so many people all at once. And their speech is confused, too—this one and that one crying out simultaneously. You do not have the power to answer all of them in orderly fashion” (Ibn Ezra on Exodus 18:18).

And if Moses is really hearing disputes, large and small, from morning to evening, also sitting out in the hot desert sun, the Israelites are not necessarily getting his best work. At times he might be tired or bored, irritated or overwhelmed, or even hungry or thirsty, which might lead him to make more rash or ill-considered decisions.

Research shows that this phenomenon continues to this day. Studying more than a thousand rulings by eight Israeli judges in 2009, Columbia professor Jonathan Levav determined that the chance of a lenient ruling at the start of the day was 65%, dropping to nearly zero before lunch, and popping up to about 65% again any time the judge took a break.

So if Moses cannot effectively settle all of the disputes himself, what must he do? Ask Someone Else.

Jethro lays out a system of magistrates and appeals that will make Someone Else responsible for minor cases. The requirements for this position will be the topic of tomorrow morning’s Torah study. But the fundamental lesson is that no one can do everything by themselves. Which means that sometimes we have to ask Someone Else, and sometimes we have to be Someone Else.

When it comes to my household, I’m a big outsourcer. When I can hire someone to take care of my taxes or clean my house, I do it. This way, I can devote my energy to other things that matter (and also not hurt myself, which is pretty likely in most home-repair and furniture-assembly situations).

I’m fortunate that I don’t have to do everything here at the synagogue either. I rely on our incredible staff and our devoted layleaders to keep the synagogue running so that I can focus on the things that are rabbi-specific, like writing this sermon. I’m grateful to have a number of Someone Elses on my team.

But even in the rabbinic realm, I cannot do it all by myself. This week, a colleague helped me brainstorm for this sermon. A Facebook group helped me write our teen unit on sustainability. I’ve been blessed to have help preparing our b’nai mitzvah. Over the last few weeks, we’ve had new people volunteer to lead Torah study and read Torah. These are all things I love to do, but oh, how grateful I was to have Someone Else share my burdens! I’m hoping in the coming months to assist more of you in learning to take on leadership roles in our services.

And here is where I really need Someone Else, not to do something for me, but to do something with me. For awhile now, we have been without a membership chair, and I’m sure a lot of us were waiting for Someone Else to step up and do it. But what I’ve realized is that the task of engaging the people currently in our Kol Ami family more deeply, and reaching out to others who may want to become part of our community, is not something I can delegate to Someone Else. But neither is it something I can do all by myself. So I’m beginning to think about how we can engage in this sacred work together.

At some point soon, I might ask some of you, specifically, to join a working group or take on a task related to strengthening our community. But in the meantime, I need all of you to join with me in helping people connect to, and engage with, the Kol Ami community. You might do this by bringing a friend to services or another synagogue event. You might do this by reaching out to engage with people already in our community that you don’t know as well or who aren’t in your immediate circle of friends, inviting them for a drink or a meal and to join you at a synagogue event. You might do this by helping us think outside of the box and brainstorming new ways of doing things, provided you are ready to roll up your sleeves and help us do them.

Jethro offers Moses his advice, not so that Moses can be free of his responsibilities, but so that the burden that rests exclusively on his shoulders can be lighter. Rabbi Levi ben Gershon interprets this to mean: “If you follow my counsel, the task will never be so heavy as to interfere with your cleaving to God” (Gersonides on Exodus 18: 19).

May we never be afraid to reach out to Someone Else to help lighten our burden, and may we never be afraid to be Someone Else when our help is needed, so that all of can be strengthened in doing our sacred work.

Some questions to consider:

  1. When have you had the realization that you could not do something all by yourself?
  2. To whom did you reach out for help? How did you empower them to help you?
  3. When has someone given you the opportunity to help them? How did that feel? What guidance did you need to be successful?

Rabbi Leah Berkowitz