Jews' Next Dor

Congregation Beth David's Young Adult Group for Jewish 20 & 30 Somethings

Yitro: The Art of Delegation

Posted by challahbackgirl on February 7, 2010

Everyone enjoyed the 2nd Jews’ Next Dor Shabbat. Thanks to all those who participated and joined us. I got a few requests to share the drash on parsha Yitro I gave, so here’s it is.

In this week’s portion we pick up the Exodus story just weeks after the Israelites are liberated from Egypt, and end with the people of Israel gathering at the foot of Mount Sinai receiving Torah. Although this portion includes the receiving of the Ten Commandments, the portion is called “Yitro.” The parsha opens with Yitro, who was Moshe’s Father-in-law, Jethro, a prominent Midian priest and worldly man, bringing Moshe’s wife, Tziporah, and sons, Gershom & Eliezer, to Moshe in the wilderness.

After the festivities of Yitro’s arrival including his proclamation of conversion to Judaism are completed; we arrive at Exodus Chapter 18, verse 13, “It was on the next day that Moshe sat to judge the people, and the people stood by Moshe from the morning until the evening.” Yitro observes his son-in-law in the line of duty and questions his actions, “What is this thing that you do to the people? Why do you sit alone with all the people standing by you from morning to evening?” (Exodus 18:14) Moshe replies that he is serving as a decision maker and intermediary between the Israelites and G-d to handle all their questions and disputes.
He tells Yitro, “Because the people will come to me to seek G-d. When they have a matter, one comes to me, and I judge between a man and his fellow, and I make known the statues of G-d and His laws.”

As we see from Moshe’s response, he’s concerned about quality control. After all, G-d chose him to teach and lead the people.

While Yitro respected this answer, it did not satisfy him. He replies back in verse 17, “The thing that you do is not good (lo tov). You will surely become worn out–you, as well as this people that is with you–because the matter is heavier than you, you will not be able to do it alone.” While I suspect Yitro would love to free up some of Moshe’s time to spend with his family, we see from his response, that Yitro is not just concerned about Moshe’s personal health and well being, but the well being and survival of all the people of Israel. Rashi explains that the weight of this endeavor is greater than Moshe’s strength can bear, and likens this process of judgment to that of a withering leaf that becomes worn out.  Speaking like an experienced leader, Yitro doesn’t just point out the flaws with Moshe as a sole independent judge, but provides a solution to the problem, while addressing his son-in-laws’ concern for quality control, as we read in verse 19,

“Now heed my voice, I shall advise you, and may G-d be with you. You be a representative to G-d, and you convey the matters to G-d. You shall caution them regarding the decrees and the teachings, and you shall make known, to them the path in which they should go and the deeds that they should do. And you shall discern from among the entire people, men of accomplishment, G-d-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. They shall judge the people at all times and they shall bring every major matter to you, and every minor matter they shall judge, and it will be eased for you, and they shall bear with you. If you do this thing — and G-d shall command you — then you will be able to endure, and this entire people, as well, shall arrive at its destination in peace.” (Exodus 18:19-23)

Rashi and others state that this passage of Yitro giving Moshe advice is out of chronological order. They explain that it actually comes after the receiving of the 10 commandments, during the second calendar year after the Exodus. Following this timeline Yitro’s advice about picking people based on their moral qualifications makes sense, as they have been living with G-ds commandments for a while.

Simon Jacobson in the article Yitro: On the Nature of Leadership & the Art of Delegation, says, “Yitro’s advice was unique in that he showed Moshe how he could delegate while maintaining the integrity of the original, with no compromise. And the secret of doing so is by infusing in the delegation a spiritual standard of integrity that will always keep the delegatee on course.”

Moshe couldn’t delegate any of his responsibilities as a judge to just anybody. A judge had to be honorable and trustworthy and hate injustice or monetary gain. It is the personality traits that matter most in a leader, not what or who they know, not their profession, not their intelligence, but who they are at their core. They must have a good heart to be a judge and share the same vision to achieve the desired outcome.

Rabbi Daniel S. Nevins, the Pearl Resnick Dean of the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, points out further wisdom from this passage,

“Yitro’s counsel is sensible, yet it is also counterintuitive. If the role of Moshe is to bring people close to G-d, and if he’s the most qualified teacher, then why shouldn’t he do it himself? Yitro’s insight is that this monopolization of spiritual leadership actually distances the people from G-d, since it makes Moshe their exclusive mediator. This passage demonstrates the necessity of training a generation of religious leaders–no individual teacher, not even Moshe, can suffice to teach the ways of G-d. It is this basic task of education–of learning from his mentor and creating structures of justice for his people–that sets the stage for revelation.”

In short, Yitro outlines a judiciary hierarchy through delegation and qualities of leadership. The portion continues with Moshe taking his father-in-law’s advice with a few tweaks. For instance, in Chaper 18 verse 22 Yitro uses the word ‘major,’ but in verse 26 Moshe implements it using the word ‘difficult.’

According to book 6 of the Torah Anthology by Rabbi Yaakov Culi, translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan,

“Jethro was mistaken. He thought that a case involving a lot of money was ‘major,’ while a case involving only pennies was ‘minor.’ Furthermore, he felt that if a judge made a mistake in a case involving pennies, it would not be important, because the loss to the litigant would be very small.

“Jethro had therefore advised Moshe to judge major cases, those involving large sums of money. If minor judges tried such cases, their mistakes might involve hundreds of dollars. But in a minor case, where a mistake would involve only pennies, it would not matter.

“Jethro was mistaken. Therefore, when Moshe appointed judges, he gave them somewhat different instructions. Instead of telling them to bring the major cases to him, he told them to bring him the difficult cases. It did not depend on how much money was involved; in Halacha, a penny is the same as a hundred dollars. A judge may not distinguish between the two. He must be as careful with a case involving pennies as he is with a case involving thousands of dollars. To the poor man, the few pennies may be more important than the hundreds of dollars to a rich man.

“On the other hand, a difficult case is very different from a simple one. Some cases are clear cut, while others are very complex. Moshe instructed that difficult cases should be brought to him.”

The idea or notion of delegation doesn’t appear to be revolutionary. Why couldn’t a wise leader like Moshe, figure this out for himself? Or why did G-d not tell Moshe to use this method to lighten his load originally?  Rabbi Yaakov Culi, goes on to explain why only Yitro could deliver this advice and allow such a system to be set up. He references Rabbi Avraham Sabba of the 15th century. Moshe couldn’t implement such a suggestion because it would look like he was tired of being a leader and wanted to throw the responsibility onto others. This may also be perceived as he was no longer interested in the well being of the people. G-d did not tell Moshe to choose others to help him, as it might cause the Israelites to have doubts about Moshe’s leadership abilities; that he might not be qualified. Aaron and the other elders also couldn’t make the suggestion because it would look selfish, like they were looking for the power and prestige that comes with being a judge.  The other Israelites did not have the audacity to speak up before their great leaders. If they did make a suggestion it would have appeared as if they were not satisfied with Moshe’s leadership. While Moshe knew he was struggling under the burden, he saw no means of lightening his load. Yitro’s arrival on the scene, a stranger, who couldn’t be perceived as having ulterior motives, coupled with being Moshe’s father-in-law, put him in the perfect position to give such advice. His prestige as a priest who observed many other nations also gave him the wisdom to define desired qualities for judging.

Michael Simon, director of programming at Harvard Hillel, in a 2005 drash on this portion, writes “Moshe’s leadership style until this point has been one of independence, and Yitro identifies the need to transform that style to one of interdependence, to an integration of the public with the private.” He goes on to say,

“the lessons brought by Yitro are critical for us to integrate into our own work, and to model for our students. We are able to be effective teachers and mentors only when we have developed a relationship based on trust and mutual connection. As we can only be effective leaders in the broader community when we recognize our interdependence, beginning with our intimate relationships of family and friends, and moving outward toward larger circles and broader missions in the world. In following Jethro’s advice, Moshe builds an initial infrastructure for the people of Israel that begins the process of nation building. Through sharing in the process of decision making and sharing the leadership load the whole community is strengthened, both the people and the institutions.”

While Jews’ Next Dor, our young adult group, is not a judiciary system, I feel these same principles explain the strengths and success of Jews’ Next Dor. In late 2004, the group, then known as CBDYAG, Congregation Beth David’s Young Adult Group, was run by Rabbi Schonbrun, around his schedule. There were 3 major events over 5 months that year, attended by 40-50 young adults. Today, Jews’ Next Dor is fully volunteer run by the group’s members with Rabbi Schonbrun in an advisory role. While I’m no Moshe, I do act in the role of quality control and help spread the wisdom learned over the years from one volunteer to the next. But the heart of Jews’ Next Dor is truly the over 50 volunteers each year putting on over 60 events for their peers. We’ve reached 300 to 500 young adults in any given year. Our members and their skills are diverse, but as Yitro pointed out to Moshe, it’s their heart and shared vision and friendships that make it successful.

There’s no way I would have the time to conceive of, plan, prepare, and run 60 plus events a year, while going to work and living my life. While I had no clue that the group that was struggling to have 1 event a month, would grow to have 60 per year a couple years later; I did know it was more than I could handle alone. Delegation, governed by heart, has worked well for building Jews’ Next Dor.

When asked about why he volunteers with Jews’ Next Dor, David Hoffert, today’s Torah Service leader and a graduate student at Stanford said,

“Jews’ Next Dor has been one of my primary social groups in the Bay Area.  From moving out here a year and a half ago with zero connections, I have probably made more friends through Jews’ Next Dor than any other organization, perhaps even including my university.  In my mind, then, it only makes sense to give back to a community that has had such an impact on my settling in to my new home.  Since Jews’ Next Dor is operated entirely by volunteers (that is to say, it would not happen without volunteers taking ownership of the various events), it is clear in my mind that volunteering is the optimal way to give back.  It’s also a great way to share my interests with my peers in Jews’ Next Dor, as well as make sure that the things I would want to do anyway have a guaranteed social group to attend with me.”

This sentiment is echoed by many Jews’ Next Dor volunteers, who step up into leadership roles because they are stakeholders of a shared vision.

Even United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism noticed our successful system, as they awarded us a Gold Solomon Schechter award for Outreach and Integration of Young Adults and Singles, to be presented to the congregation today.

Congregation Beth David also received a Gold award for Membership recruitment and a Silver award in the category of Worship and Ritual, for the High Holiday’s Teen Experience. All three of these awards are based on leadership structures that delegate responsibilities and provide ownership experiences for and among the stakeholders who maintain a shared vision. This goes directly back to Yitro’s advice to Moshe. Just as Yitro recommended choosing appropriate people for the job, we at Beth David involve people in leadership roles who have a vested interest in the particular group’s outcome.

Shabbat Shalom!


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