Sermon: Yitro

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 1 February 2016

Long long ago, way back in the last century, I remember going to my kosher butcher shortly before Pesach. He kept a bottle of schnapps under the counter and he’d offer a glass to his favoured customers. I was apparently among this elite. We clinked glasses and drank. “What was I doing for Pesach?” he asked. I told him, but the way he asked made it clear he wanted me to ask him the same question. Compliantly I asked him, “and what are you doing for Passover?” “First night I’ll be at home,” he said, “but second night,” (here he leaned conspiratorially over the counter and his voice dropped) “we’ll be with family in New York.” In other words, he would be over the Atlantic on 1st day Passover in violation of the same Jewish Law that determined the kashrut of the meat he sold. And if I had been the rabbi of the local United Synagogue?…. I would probably still have got my glass of schnapps but not details of how he would be spending Pesach!

I remember telling Rabbi Dow Marmur about it. Dow said he would have been tempted to ask: “well, can I trust the kashrut of your meat?” In other words, if the butcher was bending the rules in one area of Jewish law, maybe he was bending them in another – namely, in the trustworthiness of the kashrut of his meat?

I presume this sort of dissonance between public and private behaviour is nothing new, but what seems different now has been the public revelations about the private doings of individuals. It seems to have reached epidemic proportions in recent times: MPs fiddling their expenses; dishonest dealings in the world of banking; tax avoidance by multi-nationals; phone hacking and worse by reporters out for a good story come what may and so on. And of course, the revelations about Jimmy Saville, Rolf Harris and other public figures. The behaviour of politicians and clergy is seen as a particularly appalling betrayal of public trust.

Or is this being rather unfair? Should we expect a higher standard of morality from public figures simply because they are public figures? What is the connection between public and private behaviour? Human fallibility is one thing; knowingly presenting yourself in one light, while actually behaving very differently, is another thing altogether. That’s not human fallibility – merely abuse of position to preserve status, power, privilege, wealth or whatever.

Yet what about this from the Talmud? “If a man sees that his evil inclination is getting the better of him, he should put on black clothes, go to a place where he is not known and do what his heart desires, but let him not profane the name of God in public.” (Hagigah 16a) Before you all rush home and dig out your black garments, one commentary offers an alternative to the plain sense meaning. Yes, the man should go incognito to a place where he’s not known but the hope is that, by the time he gets there, he will have his yetser hara, his evil inclination, under control and he won’t need to do what he originally intended! So if someone you know puts on a dark cloak, and tells you they’re going to Scunthorpe for a few hours, take note!…

But joking apart, that Talmudic statement recognises that we all contain within us elements of good and bad, and that it’s not a matter of eradicating the negative within us so much as keeping it in some sort of check and balance.

Finding that balance is, obviously, not easy. Before we’re too quick to judge public figures for their imbalance, other Talmudic dicta are appropriate: we are reminded “do not judge others until you have come into their place,” and “do not be sure of yourself until the day of your death.” (Avot 2:5) In other words, we might have got the balance more-or-less right up to now – but tomorrow is another day with new challenges, and who knows how we will behave then?

In our Torah reading, Moses’ father-in-law is visiting. Moses tells him about the difficulties he’s got dealing with the problems the people bring to him for adjudication. From dawn till dusk, he says, it’s wearing me out. A midrash spells it out a bit more: “when I go out early, the people say, ‘he’s going to get the best bits of manna’; if I go out late they say, ‘he couldn’t get up earlier because he was drunk the night before’; if I go out among the people they say, ‘he’s trying to show how humble and ordinary he is by pretending he’s like we are’; and when I stay apart from the people, they say: ‘look who thinks he’s too good to mix with us.’”

Yitro runs a personal time-management seminar for Moses, suggests establishing a system of judges and suggests a person specification for the right sort of person for leadership. Moses should look, he says, for those who  possess a number of characteristics. They should be mikol ha’am ‘from among all the people’; anshei hayil translated in the Plaut as ‘capable people.’ But anshei chayil means literally ‘strong people.’ Rashi understands that to mean ‘wealthy people’ – in other words, not likely to be swayed by bribes. Ibn Ezra suggests that they should be strong in the sense that they will not be hurt or swayed by criticism, while Sforno sees strength here as the strength to compromise and resolve differences. They should be anshei emet ‘honest people’ and son’ei vatza ‘who hate ill-gotten gain.’ This latter is something more than just a hatred of corruption but a commitment to social justice, possessing an understanding of moral distinctions which might not be instantly obvious. Quite a list: strength and capability; honesty; hating corruption. Would that more of our public figures used this as their check-list to see if they qualify for public office. But that list should, of course, apply not just to those in the public spotlight, but for us, also, as private individuals.

And if Yitro’s list stopped at son’ei vatza ‘those who hate ill-gotten gain,’ it would be interesting from a managerial point of view, but not much more.

But Yitro recognises that what these people need is something beyond organisational skill – surely all leaders should possess that, at the very least? – but something we might call ‘leadership,’ which has to do with vision, wisdom, the ability to think strategically, to see beyond the immediate.

So Yitro, the pagan priest from Midian, adds one more requirement: leaders, he says, should be yiray elohim, “in awe of God.” It’s that final element which elevates the list out of the ordinary. Awe of God is not easy to define but there’s a hint in a prayer near the beginning of the service: l’olam y’hay adam y’ray shamayim ba’sayter k’va’galui, “we should always be in awe of heaven in private as well as in public.” There should be no difference between our private and our public behaviour.

A novice nun is banging a nail into the wall to hang a picture. She hits her thumb. ”Oh damn!” she says, “that really hurt!” Realising what she’s just said, she says “oh hell, I said ‘damn’!” And so it goes on until finally, in exasperation, she says “oh who wanted to be a nun anyway?!”

Only the novice sees the human struggle as that of aiming for perfection. The more mature, experienced ‘practitioner’ knows that the real struggle is less about achieving some perfect public behaviour, more about trying to keep the dissonance between public and private as narrow as possible.

Which connects neatly with our haphtarah. As we heard God appears to Solomon in a dream and asks him “what shall I grant you?” Like Moses, Solomon is concerned about judging the people and asks God for a lev sho’mea, “a listening heart to judge Your people, to distinguish between good and bad.” (1 Kings 3:9) God’s response is to reflect that he could have asked for riches or the life of his enemies, but instead asked for a lev sho’mea. “Therefore, I am going to grant you a lev hacham v’navon a wise and discerning heart” (1 Kings 3:12) There is a lot of cleverness in the world, sadly much less wisdom.

While our Torah reading and haphtarah speak to us of the leadership of public figures – judges, here, but by implication anybody in a position of leadership, however loosely that may be defined – it really speaks to us all about our standards of behaviour and how we manage the gap between private morality and public behaviour.

Spiritual status depends not so much on position as direction. What is important is not the station we’re at now – that’s just a point on the line – but the overall direction in which we’re heading.