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A Good Example Shows the Way

Mati Kirschenbaum

In the opening words of this week’s Torah portion Yitro we find out that the news of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and their victory over Amalek has reached Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law. Upon hearing such good tidings Yitro decides that his daughter Tzipora, Moses’ wife, and her two sons will no longer face any danger if they join the Israelites who are being led by their father and husband. Thus Yitro sets out on a journey to Mount Sinai, at the foot of which Moses has set camp. Seeing his family after a long separation brings Moses great joy. However, he doesn’t have much time to enjoy their company – he is able to spend only one evening with his close ones. The next day he has to go back to work. Here is how our Parashat describes his work:

Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. (Exodus 18:13.)

Yitro, who has many years of experience in leading the Midianites, does not like the style of leadership exercised by Moses. Therefore he gives his son-in-law the following advice:

The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow. You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you. (Exodus 18:17-22.)

Following Yitro’s advice, Moses appoints some of the Israelites as chiefs responsible for judging issues of smaller importance, whereas from now on he will be responsible for communicating with the Eternal and with Israel’s elders. Freed from the burden of dealing with the smallest of the Israelites’ problems, Moses can now climb up Mount Sinai, where, during his meeting with God, he will receive the Torah. We could say that Yitro’s advice acts as a foundation without which Moses would not be able to build a social system which embodies the values that were revealed to him on Mount Sinai. Could you imagine a society in which one person is responsible both for teaching the members of the society how they should behave as well as for making sure that they abide by the law? I don’t think such a society would be able to function smoothly. Parashat Yitro teaches us that charismatic leaders are not able to shoulder the burden of managing great social projects without the organizational structures which make it possible for them to carry out complicated tasks. It is exactly owing to such structures that subsequent generations are able to act in agreement with the spirit of the values embraced by their predecessors.

I believe that many of us still cannot come to grips with the killing of Paweł Adamowicz, the mayor of Gdańsk. We wonder what actions we could undertake to make sure that his memory won’t be forgotten. We are afraid that his death is a sign that Poland has transformed into a country riddled with division and hatred, a country in which showing openness towards others might provoke hatred and violence.

Parashat Yitro teaches us that we can counteract such tendencies. We can carry on the heritage of Paweł Adamowicz by continuing his work, by taking part in actions which fulfill the ideals that he embraced. Just like he did, we can demand that our local governments introduce programs supporting the integration of immigrants. Just like Paweł Adamowicz we can support the rights of people from the LGBT community. Just like Paweł Adamowicz we can publicly declare that local patriotism and a sense of pride in being Europeans actually strengthen our attachment to Poland rather than weakening it. By acting this way we’ll be strengthening those structures in our society which promote the ideals that Paweł Adamowicz held very dear.

Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, was not destined to participate in the offering of the Torah on Sinai. He goes back to his country before that event takes place. However, his service and assistance to the people of Israel will not be forgotten – the Parashat containing the description of how God and Israel entered into a covenant carries his name. Paweł Adamowicz did not live to see Poland fully implementing the ideals that he embraced. This Shabbat I encourage you to reflect on what kind of actions you could undertake to make sure that the vision of Poland which Paweł Adamowicz believed in can come true in honor of his memory. Zichrono livracha — may his memory be for a blessing.

Mati Kirschenbaum

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka