What Synagogue Leaders Can Learn from Yitro
By Barry S. Mael
I have always been fascinated by characters in the Torah and the leadership lessons we can learn from them. Many of the most prominent personalities such as Abraham, Moses, Joseph and Jacob get much of the attention. However, I have always been very interested in Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law, the high priest of Midian who brings Moses’s family to the Jewish camp in the desert after the crossing of the sea and the battle with Amalek (maybe my interest was initially piqued because Yitro was the name of my Bar Mitzvah portion). In one section, Yitro observes Moses spending day and night judging the people. He becomes very concerned and shares his concerns with his son-in-law. What ensues is a fascinating interaction which gives us several wonderful lessons for synagogue and nonprofit leaders. Below is the text of the interaction (italics), followed by my interpretations.
Exodus Chapter 18
13 It came about on the next day that Moses sat down to judge the people, and the people stood before Moses from the morning until the evening.
14 When Moses’ father-in-law saw what he was doing to the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit by yourself, while all the people stand before you from morning till evening?”
Don’t rush to judgment. Always give people a chance to explain.
When Yitro sees that Moshe sits down by himself all day and the people are standing and waiting to be seen, he feels that something is wrong. However, instead of Yitro first saying this is a problem, he chooses to ask Moses “Why do you sit by yourself, while all the people stand before you from morning till evening?” He gives Moses a chance to explain that will possibly shed a different light than what Yitro is seeing. It is always important to let your staff or leaders explain a situation before you make decisions.
15 Moses said to his father in law, “For the people come to me to seek God.
16 If any of them has a case, he comes to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor, and I make known the statutes of God and His teachings.”
Don’t get defensive when questioned.
After Yitro asks Moses what he is doing and what is happening there in front of him Moses responds to his questions respectfully and appropriately. Moses clearly believes that he is performing an important task in the best manner available. Moses doesn’t respond by saying “why are you asking?” or “what is the problem?” He answers the question as best he can from his perspective.
17 Moses’ father in law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not good.
18 You will surely wear yourself out both you and these people who are with you for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.
19 Now listen to me. I will advise you, and may the Lord be with you. [You] represent the people before God, and you shall bring the matters to God.
20 And you shall admonish them concerning the statutes and the teachings, and you shall make known to them the way they shall go and the deed[s] they shall do.
21 But you shall choose out of the entire nation men of substance, God fearers, men of truth, who hate monetary gain, and you shall appoint over them [Israel] leaders over thousands, leaders over hundreds, leaders over fifties, and leaders over tens.
22 And they shall judge the people at all times, and it shall be that any major matter they shall bring to you, and they themselves shall judge every minor matter, thereby making it easier for you, and they shall bear [the burden] with you.
23 If you do this thing, and the Lord commands you, you will be able to survive, and also, all this people will come upon their place in peace.”
Don’t just state problems. True leaders offer solutions as well.
After Yitro hears Moses’s answer to his question, he tells Moses that he believes there is a problem. The idea of Moses serving everyone all by himself will cause burnout. Yitro suggests that if Moses makes the people wait all day and night to be seen many will get angry, frustrated and maybe stop waiting or asking. But Yitro doesn’t stop there. He offers an idea which will be better for Moses and the people.
It is important for leaders to delegate.
For leaders to be effective, they need to trust those around them and find ways to delegate. Sharing the responsibilities builds skills and trust. Delegation not only helps organizations be healthy and more effective; it also helps develop additional and better trained leaders. When power is maintained and controlled by very few, outcomes suffer. When those leaders leave, the next generation isn’t prepared to step into the leadership roles.
24 Moses obeyed his father in law, and he did all that he said.
Leaders know how to accept constructive criticism.
After Yitro states his concerns and offers his ideas, Moses could have told him “thank you, but no thank you, I know what I’m doing.” Instead, Moses listened intently and he “obeyed his father-in -law and did all that he said.” Moses was prepared to hear new ideas and make things better. He didn’t reject Yitro’s criticism.
25 Moses chose men of substance out of all Israel and appointed them as heads of the people, leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens.
When hiring staff and choosing leaders, prioritize the skill sets to get the best available people.
When Yitro first suggested Moses delegate his judging responsibilities he recommended that Moses look to “choose out of the entire nation men of substance, God fearers, men of truth, who hate monetary gain, and you shall appoint over them [Israel] leaders over thousands, leaders over hundreds, leaders over fifties, and leaders over tens.” However when he implements the plan it says that “Moses chose men of substance out of all Israel and appointed them as heads of the people, leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens.” Moses found men of substance but they weren’t necessarily God fearers and men of truth who hate monetary gain. He chose the best available people based on the skill sets needed. According to the commentator Rashi “men of substance: wealthy men, who do not have to flatter or show favoritism. Perhaps at this early point in the development of the nation one could easily identify wealthy people who wouldn’t be influenced by the money or power of others.
26 And they would judge the people at all times; the difficult case they would bring to Moses, but any minor case they themselves would judge.
27 Moses saw his father in law off, and he went away to his land
In the final analysis we learn a great deal regarding leadership from Yitro and Moses in this one interaction. It is little surprise to me that the portion is named for Yitro and Moses is seen as the great leader of the Jewish people There is much to learn from what leaders say but even more from their actions.
As it says in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers Chapter 1, Mishnah 15, “Shammai said… say little and do much.”
Barry S. Mael is Senior Director, Kehilla Affiliations & Operations, USCJ.