The Structures that Set Us Free

In a recent article in the Sunday Styles Section of The New York Times entitled “The Family Stories that Bind Us,” Bruce Feiler notes a surprising correlation between the resilience and health of children and their fluency in their family’s stories: “the single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” He quotes research that has identified that “the more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem.”

The Jewish community has succeeded in preserving our people’s narrative for generations; the current Passover season and the core ritual of re-enacting the Exodus narrative has perhaps contributed to Jewish resilience and continuity throughout the years. But what is critical is that we have been able to preserve the core aspects of our shared stories while maintaining flexibility and creativity with the structures through which the stories emerge; our diverse community’s Seders share the telling of a core narrative, but are often structured radically differently from one another. Feiler quotes Jim Collins, a management expert and author of “Good to Great,” who explained that in any successful group venture, it is critical to “preserve core, while stimulating progress.” The challenge is: how can we be sure what is “core,” and should be preserved, and what is “non-core,” and should therefore be adaptable and flexible?

In Exodus, chapter 18, soon after the Exodus and the miraculous splitting of the Red Sea, Yitro, Moses’s father in law, gives Moses advice about how to restructure his relationship with the people so that it can be more effective and sustainable. This chapter precedes chapter 19, in which the Israelites receive the Ten Commandments. It is an interesting juxtaposition. Why does the Torah connect this restructuring Moses’s relationship with the Israelites immediately preceding the moment of revelation, in which the core values of the Jewish tradition are unveiled?

I believe that Yitro represents the wisdom in the importance of how we structure and design our communal institutions. Moses knew that he wanted to offer something valuable to the people – he “judged between a man and his fellow and made known God’s laws” (verse 16). But the way in which he had structured that offering was preventing him from delivering the quality he had to offer, and preventing any sustainability and growth going forward. If the people were to genuinely grow and accept the wisdom in the revelation that was to come, they needed to be organized in a way that would optimize their receptivity to what was being offered. Perhaps the message of the juxtaposition of chapters 18 and 19 in the book of Exodus is to remind us that unless we are creative and flexible in the way we structure our offerings to the community, we will be unable to benefit from the wisdom that Judaism has to offer us.

Yitro represents what should be flexible and adaptable in our tradition – the institutional structures – while the Revelation at Sinai represents the core – the values and stories that are timeless – that continue to offer us wisdom and guidance today. We must remember not to confuse the structure for the core, and not to fear re-organizing the way in which we work in order to access that core. We must enter the flexible space of Chapter 18, and heed the message of the Yitro, take the risks to leave the structures that have provided us security and direction, which may now limit us, as we remain sustained and inspired by the unchanging vision of Mount Sinai, ever-present as we gaze ahead.

Maya Bernstein is Strategic Design Officer of UpStart Bay Area.