Yitro: Lessons in Leadership

Don’t Pursue Honor

What does the Torah teach us about work-life balance?

Table for Five: Yitro

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

And you shall discern from among the entire people, men of accomplishment, God-fearing people, men of truth, people who despise money, and you shall appoint them leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens….

– Ex. 18:21


Rabbi Shmuel Reichman, International Speaker, Bestselling Author, Business Consultant

Leadership is an oft-misunderstood concept. True leaders do not represent themselves, nor do they represent the will of the people; they strive to represent the truth, idealism, and the transcendent will of God, inspiring others to do the same.

In an ideal society, everyone is devoted to achieving their own unique leadership potential, while simultaneously devoting their individual greatness toward the larger collective greatness of the nation as a whole. A leader’s role is to enable everyone to embark on their own journey of self-discovery and achievement while also helping them devote their lives to a greater whole — to that which transcends themselves: to Hashem, the Jewish People, and the world as a whole.

Some leaders are the face of a nation, the ones who stand in front of large crowds and deliver extraordinary and inspiring speeches. But that is not the only type of leader. A leader is anyone who is on a mission, who empowers others, and who is always looking for ways to contribute to the greater good. Leaders are great parents, great teachers, and great friends. We are all potential leaders; we are all potential revolutionaries. We can all create change in the world. But to create any external change, we must first learn to develop ourselves and live with higher ideals. Let us all be inspired to become the greatest version of ourselves, with the hopes that our own journey of growth will inspire others to become the greatest version of themselves as well.


Rabbi/Cantor Eva Robbins, Co-Rabbi Nvay Shalom & Faculty, AJRCA

How timely is this statement in Torah? Those that lead locally, state-wide, and nationally, as Torah describes, tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands, must avoid politicization. Moses must discern men with ethics, morality, and truth as well as mature in intellect and spirituality. They must have wisdom and knowledge of Torah, their greatest resource, filled with Gd’s teachings. Quite surprisingly and comforting, civil leaders must have reverence for the Divine. The expectations were high, but as leaders and men who judge others, while guiding the people to the promised land, integrity was of the highest order and responsibility a serious endeavor. Most importantly Torah tells us they must “hate ill-begotten gains” (“Sonei-Vatzah”) and not be motivated by bribes or influenced by rich and powerful people.

We have seen so many accounts, in our day, of unethical behavior in higher levels of leadership and decision-making, so reading this section of Torah is an important reminder of what effective leadership truly is about. The Hebrew description for such people is “Anshe-Chayil,” Men of Valor, meaning strength of character. We also see this description in Proverbs 31, “Aishet-Chayil,” A Woman of Valor, a woman who is honored and respected. In both cases, whether male or female, it is character that matters; one’s ethics, one’s moral compass, and honest and courageous leadership. As we see the embattled disarray in our own political world, our tradition reminds us, peace comes when we follow the most important guiding principles for good, effective, and respectable leadership.


Judy Gruen, Author, “Bylines and Blessings”

Moshe had been judging every single civil dispute among the people when his father-in-law, Yitro, arrived on the scene and saw that the court system was hopelessly backlogged. Moshe had the best of intentions. He was extremely perceptive, quickly realizing the truth of the cases brought to him. No one could question his integrity.

But the system was inefficient, and Yitro pointed out the unfairness of people having to wait so long to have their cases heard, not to mention the growing burden on Moshe himself. Yitro – for whom the parsha is named – was also a man of great perception. He had tested out every other religion before converting to Judaism, recognizing its ultimate truth. This qualified him to identify the flaws in the system and to devise a streamlined process of adjudication. He instructed Moshe to establish “lower courts” and “higher courts,” allowing more people to feel they were being heard by what we might call today a jury of their peers. Ideally, this would allow more litigants to accept judgements with equanimity.

However, Rabbi Yissachar Frand observes that this system could create strife and jealousy in the community. A judge of only 50 could feel slighted that his neighbor gets to judge 5,000. This is why only “a man of truth” could be considered for a judgeship. Ego is a trap we easily fall into, but the shallowness of pursuing honor is meaningless to people who value truth above personal honor.


Dr. Erica Rothblum, Head of School/Pressman Academy

Moshe is experiencing burnout, a state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. And while it is not good for anyone to feel burnout, a leader’s burnout will impact both themselves and the people they serve. So when Yitro guides Moshe to empower people he can trust, Yitro is teaching all of us about the basics of well being.

In this case, Moshe’s burnout is going to be (at least partially) alleviated by sharing leadership. Sharing the leadership burden has practical benefits. By sharing duties, Moshe can do a reasonable amount of work, while also having time to eat, rest, and connect with family. It was perhaps the first lesson on work-life balance! Sharing the responsibilities empowers others, ensuring that the Israelites don’t need Moshe in order to thrive. And sharing the load invests additional people, creating a team working towards a shared outcome. These are all meaningful steps.

But ultimately, Yitro is teaching all of us that the antidote to burnout is connection with others. By sharing leadership, Moshe is now not alone. Unlike our modern mindset of self care, science repeatedly proves that community, connection and relationships are the true antidote to burnout. The alarm is so high that the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a warning, offering that social connection is imperative for physical, mental and emotional health. Yitro understood then that these connections allow us to feel part of something bigger than ourselves, ultimately helping us to live healthy lives and to be strong leaders.


Yehudit Garmaise, Reporter, Writer, and Parsha Teacher

Before we get to experience “the thunderclaps, the lightning flashes, the thick cloud of smoke, and the powerful blast of the shofar” of Matan Torah, Parshat Yitro teaches us to share the many responsibilities that make living al pi halacha (according to Jewish law) possible.

While observing that Moshe was wearing himself out by attempting to lead am Yisroel, teach Torah, and settle every dispute, Yitro saw that his son-in-law could not possibly “go at it alone,” as the Lubavitcher Rebbe describes. By giving Moshe the sound advice to choose enough appropriate Jews to adjudicate most cases, Yitro not only earns the merit of Hashem’s agreement, but Moshe’s father-in-law provides a model of service that every community needs to thrive.

While some community members may be tempted to sit back and expect others to shoulder the plentiful and varied tasks involved in keeping Jewish life humming, Yitro makes the crucial point that our institutions will deteriorate (G-d forbid) and leaders will burn out unless all members volunteer their time and talents in some way.

Teaching Torah, hosting shiurim, organizing social events, working at mikvahs, taking part in shul security duties, leading children’s activities, picking up and sponsoring food for weekly kiddushes, and managing cleaning help are just a few of the countless opportunities we have to strengthen and take part in the beautiful infrastructures that our lives require.

“Am I among the G-d-fearing people who make the beauty, warmth, and meaning of a Torah community running strong for everyone?” Yitro reminds us to ask ourselves.


Image: “Jethro and Moses” by James Tissot, c. 1900

With thanks to Rabbi Shmuel Reichman, Rabbi/Cantor Eva Robbins, Judy Gruen, Dr. Erica Rothblum, and Yehudit Garmaise

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