2016-01-20 / Religion Column

Like Moses, we should not be afraid to reach out for help

Adath Emanu- El

Parshat Yitro Ex. 18:1-20:23

Only six portions in the entire Torah are named for specific individuals. I believe we are meant to pay special attention to these portions, for they teach us lessons that are truly timeless. Each in their own way, the stories of Noach, Chayei Sarah, Yitro, Korach, Balak and Pinchas urge us out of our comfort zone. Noah, for instance, has us consider the awesome power of God above and our own limitations as humans. Sarah shows us what it means to live with compassion. Korach has us think about the ways in which we can respectfully challenge leaders and policy-makers. Balak has us consider the power of our words. Pinchas cautions us against fundamentalism and allowing religion to become an excuse for violence.

This week, we arrive at another of such portions. As we make our way through the Book of Exodus, we now reach Parshat Yitro.

You may recall that Yitro is a Midianite priest and Moses’ fatherin law. Now, as Moses reunites with his family, we witness another stunning display of humility from this figure our tradition will call Moshe Rabbeinu, our great rabbi. Even after all he has accomplished, Moses is not above asking the elder Yitro for help. Yitro obliges. He teaches Moses what it means to delegate and share both the burden and the great responsibility of leadership. We can hear the urgency in Yitro’s words: “You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well…You cannot do it alone” (Ex 18:18). Yitro advises him to seek out “men who fear God, trustworthy men” as judges to help in deciding disputes (Ex 18:21).

Our tradition will celebrate Yitro, who is clearly there for an exhausted Moses. Let’s not forget that he has just led his people from the shackles of slavery to the uncertainties of the wilderness. He is trying desperately to balance his commitment to God and commitment to the Jewish people. Tractate Brachot of the Talmud speaks of the great reward Yitro will receive for helping Moses in this time of anxiety.

So what’s the takeaway for us? Well, for one thing, this Torah portion reminds us that we all need help. If Moses, the greatest of teachers and leaders, needs an occasional hand, then we certainly “cannot do it alone” either. To be part of a community, all the more so a congregational community, is to get that help in the form of trusted teachers and clergy, camaraderie and support, perhaps childcare or social services. We live in an age that celebrates the group less and the individual more, whether it be the celebrity athlete, latest social media sensation, or iconic movie star, yet Judaism urges just the opposite, encouraging us, in the language of the Mishnah, to never “separate from the community” (Pirkei Avot 2:5).

This is an important lesson, especially during the coldest and darkest months of our year, when so many of us could use some help, some company, or a greater level of support. Please, do not be afraid to ask. Moses didn’t have to do it alone, and neither do you. Turn to friends, family, or your Jewish community.

A second takeaway is perhaps less obvious. This portion also challenges us to try to learn from everyone. As Moses learns from Yitro, he learns from someone of a different faith and a different age than his own. Portions named after non-Jews, such as Yitro and Balak, help us to see in our own day that we should be looking beyond the most convenient and comfortable sources as we seek to grow. This past Rosh HaShanah I gave a sermon on how much I have learned from none other than Pope Francis. A few weeks ago, I joined with the Tri-county Board of Rabbis as we sat with over 50 area Priests in an effort to better learn of one another’s theology and practice. Our Confirmation class at Adath Emanu-El engages in a series of conversations with area clergy every year, all in an effort to expand our understanding of faith, and undo assumptions we make about otherness.

In an age when the “other” has been increasingly demonized, and we cast those unlike ourselves as scary, I would urge us to seek out those whose experiences or points of view may not mirror our own. This is about the books we read, the conversations we have, the articles we pick up, and so much more. It’s also about, like Moses, seeing the good and the humanity in others, and allowing their story to bring greater life and meaning to our own. .

Return to top