BY RABBI MARSHALL LESACK / AJT //
In this post-inauguration and post-election period for the United States and Israel, respectively, we are well aware that leadership styles, models and talents can vary greatly between individuals. In Parashat Yitrospecifically, we are witness to the fact that the ability to listen, to hear and to convey ideas effectively are all traits of outstanding leadership.
In the chapters that precede the description of G-d’s revelation at Sinai, we read about Moses’ father-in-law and the instrumental role he played in establishing the legal system for the Jewish people in the wilderness. We are introduced to Yitro after he hears about all the things that “G-d had done for Moses and for Israel His people (Exodus 18:1).”
Yitro then brings Zipporah, Gershom and Eliezer back to Moses, and father-in-law and son-in-law soon reconnect as Moses recounts to Yitro the story of G-d’s power and the Exodus from Egypt. Finally – less than a day after being reunited – the unsolicited advice from elder to younger pours out.
In these moments, we see the mutual respect either has for the other and a model for great leadership. Yitro witnesses Moses serving as the lone judge for the people, hearing their disputes and then rendering his decisions. Then, no more than a verse passes within the text before Yitro intercedes, listens to Moses’ reasoning and then offers his own perspective.
He says, “This is not a good thing you are doing,” a gentle way of telling him that the whole manner in which Moses is going about this procedure is completely wrong (Exodus 18:17). It is not that his rulings or warnings to people are incorrect, as says the Midrash Sechel Tov (12th-century commentary), but rather that the system is untenable both for Moses and the people.
Thus, Moses develops a new system – based on Yitro’s feedback – in which the responsibility is shared with other individuals and only the major disputes come before Moses.
Yitro’s suggestions are not earth-shattering; what is most impressive about this scene is his ability to witness the pitfalls of the current structure and to share practical solutions in a way that Moses can hear them. At the same time, Moses’ ability to place his ego aside, to listen to the perspective of an “outsider” and to implement changes based on that input show his dedication to doing what is best for the people and not to making his own name great.
Indeed, after having recently returned from a conference for the Foundation for Jewish Camp, the value of having genuine leaders who both listen to and share feedback has been on my mind a good deal. I had the fortune to work with educators of varied backgrounds, skill sets and professions (all leaders in their own right) as we modeled educational programs, critiqued one another and internalized the comments that were being offered.
In this small group of Jewish leaders, I perceived Yitro’s ability to diagnose a potential problem and Moses’ ability to listen to feedback, both in group sessions and in individual conversations. Most impressively, at the core of all of these conversations was the commitment to creating outstanding experiences and training programs for others – even if it meant rethinking, refining or changing one’s own program.
Leadership manifests itself in different ways, and thus it is hard to define one style, model or talent as the most beneficial. But as we learn from Parashat Yitro, the ability to listen, to hear and to convey ideas effectively cannot be overlooked in the conversation. These talents have the power to inspire and to bring about real change in the world.
Rabbi Marshall Lesack is the director of education at Congregation Shearith Israel and a member of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association.