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Sermon: Real Leadership - Yitro 2012

Once a dear Rabbinic colleague of mine received a phone call from her surgeon on the Thursday evening before Shabbat Yitro – this Shabbat.  She had been undergoing tests for possible cancer and he phoned her on that Thursday evening and told her to make it to the hospital for an appointment at 9.00am on the Saturday morning as “what had been found was rather serious”.  What do you think this Rabbi of a congregation’s immediate reply was?   Her instinctive reaction was to ask him whether she would be OK to lead the Shabbat Morning Service at 11.00am.

Of course she wouldn’t be and though my colleague is still very much with us and thankfully her cancer is in remission, she realised that she had fallen into the leadership trap which out of which Jethro pulled Moses in this Torah portion.   While she embarked upon cancer treatment the congregation could pull together and look after itself.

Freddy read us the Ten Commandments, the best known part of this week’s momentous Torah portion.   They give the people of Israel the beginning of their laws to live by so that they can look after themselves.  But in the earlier part of the portion which gives it its name Moses is visited in the wilderness by his father-in-law Jethro. 

Moses tells him all the wondrous things that have happened to the Israelites since their escape. Jethro responds by praising God and hosting a festive meal for Moses, Aaron, and the Israelite elders.   Jethro observes Moses spending his days settling disputes among the Israelites. Jethro suggests that Moses share this burden and delegate chiefs to judge all but the most difficult cases. Moses accepts this advice.

In Reform Judaism, ever since Israel Jacobson set up his Lehrhaus Synagogue in Seesen in Germany in 1810, we have tended to see out Rabbis as leaders from the front.  We have so oriented our Synagogues so that the Rabbi, in his or her role as service leader physically stands at the front of the community as I am now.  We ask him or her to be the default person responsible for everything that happens in the community and sometimes this can lead Rabbis into a questionable leadership trap. It is one that Moses too fell into.  His father in law Jethro – pulls him out of it.  He had taken on the whole burden of leadership of the children of Israel and was clearly under great stress because of it – as he himself said “I cannot bear alone the burden of this community”.

But the assumption that without you all will collapse is one which effects leaders in business, in public life and can easily finish off their effectiveness as they wear themselves out taking everything on.    The example of Moses who learns through Jethro that he must delegate and share responsibility becomes a beacon lesson for Jewish leaders.

Though we are not to think of ourselves as indispensible, Judaism greatly values the individual and what they are able to do.  Our Bar and Bat Glossary definitionMitzvah ceremony underscores this many times every year in our synagogue as we watch awe-struck as Freddy or one of his contemporaries mounts the Glossary definitionBimah to lead us with erudition and expertise giving us the words of Torah in his own fresh way.  Our communities need leaders – in the words of Moses himself later on in the Torah – someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Eternal One may not be like sheep without a shepherd.  But then the Glossary definitionTalmud tells us that “the years of him are shortened who runs after leadership.”

That is because, as our parasha indicates, for leadership to be effective it must be shared out involving a group of people who work together for the benefit of the community.  The “Moses” principle in which all decisions that it was not necessary for him to take himself would be delegated to others to deal with gives rise to the primary duty of a Rabbi.

The primary duty of a Rabbi is surely to make him or herself redundant – to so increase the Jewish educational level of the congregation that his learning is no longer needed, to so recognise and develop the prayer leading skills of the congregation that the service leads itself, to so encourage the confidence of community members that activities to meet community needs are continually being organised.   The Rabbi can then support the community at a higher level – educationally, in terms of their participation in the service, and at a strategic level of community organisation. 

Of course this never completely happens – especially in a community such as ours which is particularly open to Jews who have not previously been involved in Synagogue life and who need to join Jewish life again with help and support, and that’s fine and part of the special challenge and fulfilment of being a Rabbi in the Reform movement. 

Than also we must consider what had been Moses’s way of working up to the point of his visit by Jethro.  By taking on all of the leadership tasks of the children of Israel upon his own shoulders he had not been a more effective leader but less effective.  It was as if you, Freddy, when you are playing football, fail to pass the ball to your team mates – thus leaving you vulnerable to the offside rule every time you go forwards for a goal.  The Mechilta Glossary definitionmidrash on our portion says that Moses was like a man who tries to carry a beam for building on his own shoulders when four or five people are really needed. 

Jetrho’s advice greatly breaks down the responsibility – not just that Moses should share his burden with a chosen few but that leadership should be broken down to rulers over thousands, hundreds and tens – meaning that the task of leading the children of Israel was, if like the Mechilta you take the census of the children of Israel performed in the Book of Numbers seriously, delegated to 78 thousand and six hundred people out of 600,000 – a truly involving vision.   It is a vision which says to Moses and to any leader who seeks to follow his example that true leadership is based upon expert delegation rather than expert performing of tasks. 

It also means that as virtually every person may be one of those to whom you wish to delegate so every person must be treated by the leader at the top of the pyramid with respect.  As followers of the B’al Shem Tov wrote “If God has granted you the privilege of being a leader in Israel do not rebuke your people with an angry heart, but with a soft tongue…  Let everyone be important in your eyes and not inconsequential.  For you cannot know who is worthy and who unworthy.  Man often looks upon a fellow as being despicable and worthless but God looks into the very heart.”

At the same time though, Judaism does encourage each person to act as if they are the only one.  Again and again throughout the Bible we hear this or that important character say the words “hineni” here am I – as Isaiah did in our Glossary definitionHaftarah portion today.  Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the Prophets Samuel and Isaiah – each one of them comes to a point in there lives when they respond Hineni “here am I” to a feeling that God is calling them to do a special task which will eventually lead them to leadership.  Each of us to is required to be prepared to say Hineni – “here am I” ready to do my bit.  This then becomes part of the purpose of bar and Bat Mitzvah to give you Freddy the chance by your own work to say Hineni, here am I ready to grow into becoming an adult Jew.  Without such preparedness to serve all the delegation skills in the world will get us nowhere as there will be no-one to delegate to.

Try to be like Moses – a person who was prepared at the burning bush to say Hineni – here am I –  I will take responsibility in my life for the Jewish people and to do my best in everything I attempt – but then also learn the lesson that Moses was forced to take on- achieve what you want to achieve with other people not by taking responsibility for other people, like Moses, wearing yourself and them out.  And while you’re applying that lesson I’ll try to jump out of the Rabbinic trap and try to do so to!




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