There can be little doubt that the greatest historic leader of the Jewish people is Moses. The entire Torah becomes known as “The Five Books of Moses” or Torat Moshe; the last lines of Deuteronomy remind us: “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses.” But what qualities made him a truly great leader?
The arc of his story lends itself to the idea of a great leader: miraculously saved as a baby and raised in Pharaoh’s court — though never really a part of the establishment; a passion for justice that leads to his wilderness exile; the experience of a shepherd, moving the flock and paying attention to those left behind; and being observant enough to recognize revelation at the burning bush. All of these and so many other experiences prepare him to be a leader par excellence.
But one defining moment that is often overlooked occurs in Parshat Yitro, which we read this Shabbat. Jethro, namesake of the portion and Moses’ father-in-law, comes to meet Moses and the Israelites immediately after their deliverance from Egyptian slavery. Observing Moses in his leadership of the Israelite people, Jethro sees the ways the people are becoming frustrated with their leader, and he sees also that Moses is not aware of the distress he is bringing upon his flock. The text tells us: “Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening.”
Jethro, a “priest of Midian,” gives Moses the criticism that can only come from someone who has “been there” as a leader. He asks Moses in a tone that you can read as either accusatory or gently critical: “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” When Moses counters that he is making known resolutions to disputes or questions for God, Jethro pushes back: “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. The task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.”
In this moment, Moses transforms from a solitary leader who shoulders the responsibility for the entire people into a collaborative leader, one who recognizes that involving the right team in carrying out the work is crucial to the success of any grand vision. In order to accept and implement this change, Moses had to be open to the criticism levied at him by Jethro; he had to be able to hear the ways in which he, despite all of his success, was failing in one crucial way. And he had to be able to hear this advice from someone whose input he had not solicited (all right, no jokes about in-laws here!).
Rabbi Pinchas Peli writes of the encounter: “The greatness of Moses is seen in the fact that, unlike many leaders who invite expert consultants to advise them and file away their reports, Moses implemented Jethro’s plan.
“Torah tells us that Moses welcomed the suggestions made by his father-in-law. He was not afraid to admit that even he, the celebrated leader and teacher, could learn a thing or two from the world outside his own camp.”
Rabbi Craig Axler is spiritual leader of Temple Isaiah in Fulton.