Sermon: Yitro: A Truly Involving Kind of Leadership

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 31 January 2014

Many people in our congregation are in positions of leadership at work.  It is a very common Jewish aspiration to be in that situation.  Many of us think it is pretty tough and demanding. But I don’t imagine that many of us share the crazily demanding work situation of Moses Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, doctor to the Sultan of Egypt and legalist.  Maimonides wrote this to his translator Samuel Ben Judah Ibn Tibbon describing, we assume why it was taking him some to time to respond to his request for a meaning.


“I dwell at Misr [Fustat] and the sultan resides at al-Qahira [Cairo]; these two places are two Sabbath days’ journey distant  from each other. My duties to the sultan are very heavy. I am obliged to visit him every day, early in the morning; and when he or any of his children, or any of the inmates of his harem, are indisposed, I dare not quit al-Qahira, but must stay during the greater part of the day in the palace. It also frequently happens that one or two royal officers fall sick, and I must attend to their healing. Hence, as a rule, I repair to al-Qahira very early in the day, and even if nothing unusual happens, I do not return to Misr until the afternoon. Then I am almost dying with hunger …I find the antechambers filled with people, both Jews and gentiles, nobles and common people, judges and bailiffs, friends and foes   a mixed multitude who await the time of my return.


I dismount from my animal, wash my hands, go forth to my patients, and entreat them to bear with me while I partake of some slight refreshment, the only meal I take in the twenty-four hours. Then I go forth to attend to my patients, and write prescriptions and directions for their various ailments. Patients go in and out until nightfall, and sometimes even, I solemnly assure you, until two hours or more in the night. I converse with and prescribe for them while lying down from sheer fatigue; and when night falls, I am so exhausted that I can scarcely speak.


In consequence of this, no Israelite can have any private interview with me, except on the Sabbath. On that day the whole congregation, or at least the majority of the members, come to me after the morning service, when I instruct them as to their proceedings during the whole week; we study together a little until noon, when they depart. Some of them return, and read with me after the afternoon service until evening prayers. In this manner I spend that day.”


Maimonides needed a Jethro to come and help him think again.   We heard from Tiger earlier as she read to us from the Torah Portion Yitro – how Moses’s father in law came to him in the wilderness – saw how ridiculously hard he was working alone to minister to the Israelites and helped him to think of a different way.   The Mechilta midrash (Yitro) 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.  It may look amazing while he is balancing it for a short time but no-one will thank him when it falls off and cracks simply because he refused to share the load.


Jetrho’s advice greatly breaks down the responsibility – not just that Moses should share his burden with a chosen few but that his leadership should be broken down to rulers over thousands, hundreds and ten – 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 literally, 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.


There is a book which truly challenges the way that we think about involvement in our Synagogues.  It is called “The Spirituality of Welcome” and was by Dr Ron Wolfson, the Professor of Education at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.  Ron Wolfson is also the Director of Synagogue 3000 an Institute for envisioning the Synagogue of the future, which he co-founded with Rabbi Larry Hoffman.


This book is full of much challenging richness but the basic question it aims to address is this:  “Why is it that so many individuals and families affiliate with Synagogues at one time or another in their lives but then move to the periphery of the congregation or leave altogether?”  Wolfson says “There are a variety of reasons, but if you unpack the usual reasons given the bottom line is that most synagogues fail to establish a connection between the individual and the congregation that is so valuable, so meaningful that it would be unthinkable to sever it.”(p15 The Spirtuality of Welcome)   Why is this? – because according to Wolfson and Hoffman there is a tacit understanding between Synagogues and members:  for the members it goes something like this “We pay you a [membership] fee for services rendered.  We expect a religious school for our children, a rabbi on call when we need him or her, and seats for the High Holy Days.  Other than that we expect you to offer programmes that may or may not attract our attendance, because after all, we are very, very busy people and synagogue is not exactly our top priority.  We like the fact that you are there when we need you, but don’t expect or exact too much more of a commitment from us.”  For the professional staff and leadership, they say the tacit understanding goes something like this, “We depend on attracting enough members to pay dues to cover our expenses – salaries, building and programme costs.  We will provide the basic functions of a Synagogue, Cheder, access to Rabbis, Bar or Bat Mitzvahtraining; High holidays, regular services and loads of programmes.” The next bit from the staff and leadership?  “Heaven help us is more than a small percentage of people actually want to engage the professional staff on a more intensive basis because, frankly we don’t have the time.”  Pp14-15


I’ll leave it to you to question whether you recognise anything of your relationship to this Synagogue or of our position as Synagogue staff in that description.  Suffice it to say that at the 15 Alyth at Home evenings at which I have met hundreds of members of our congregations so far one issue that comes up again and again is where the Synagogue has not in Woolfson’s words “accepted the challenge of welcoming all who come within its orbit and become a Synagogue of relationships.”   This has been the case for people whose children have left home who have found that once the children’s programmes as Alyth are no longer relevant to them Shul has lost its place in their lives.  This has been the case for parents of disabled children whose kids have not found an active place in the community.  This has been the case for those whose adult children have not remained part of the congregation when they have grown up.    Though the keynote of these evenings has been people really happy with Alyth , every evening on my way home I realise the challenge of welcome – of building myself a relationship that is meaningful with every member of the shul.


Of course even thinking like that is just falling into the same trap from which Jethro rescued Moses, and which threatened to overwhelm Maimonides.  I cannot, and nor can the shul’s professional staff achieve the making of a sustaining relationship with every Alyth member by ourselves.  This is truly a work of welcoming partnership.  That means everybody.  That means, everyone of us creating a welcoming ambience in the shul – is it obvious where to go in this building, what is happening when and where, who it is for.  Consider the person near you in the congregation – do they know where they are in the service, have they been welcomed at the beginning of the service and will their presence be appreciated at the end of it.  Is our worship welcoming – do we all participate to the best of our ability – in song, in prayer, in helping people to find the page and understand what to do to be part of the service.  Is membership here at Alyth something which brings you closer to your fellow Jews and to all who seek spiritual or communal meaning through Judaism?


How much do all of us participate together in creating a Synagogue of relationships?   Rabbis, Cantor, Educators, Administrators and Music and Community Directors, Chairpeople and Synagogue Councillors can for sure set the tone but the task is a holy one for all of us.  In the Talmud Berachot 17a – a favourite saying of the Rabbis of Yavneh was recorded (in a community whose welcome saved Judaism from destruction by the Romans) “I am God’s creature and all others are God’s creatures”  – if we see the image of God in every other person we encounter through this congregation we cannot shy away from our task to be with them in the Jewish journey – rather than rely on others to do it for us.


I want to end with a cautionary tale:  When I was a student rabbi, Nicola, my wife, and I attended for many weeks at a large congregation at which I was working as a student.  Towards the end of my assignment there the Chairman asked how Nicola enjoyed her Shabbatot there.   I had to be frank and say that she had found them pretty difficult.  Why? The Chairman asked.  “Because week after week no-one spoke to her in the congregation, neither in the shul nor at Kiddush.”  The Chairman was naturally horrified.  Then he made a telling comment:  “Did Nicola tell people that she was your wife?”  “I don’t know”- I replied.  “Well that was the problem said the Chairman – “If she had told people that she was the Student Rabbi’s wife of course they would have spoken to her.”     May Alyth be a shul where we offer a real and deep welcome to all who come here in search of God and the Jewish community regardless of status or any other discriminating factor.  “The hurt we do each other is a greater offence than the hurt we do God.  God recovers: the men and women we ignore, dismiss, don’t take seriously or offend by our words and manner may not.” P39 Spirituality of welcome.