The Value of Humility Parshat Yitro

Ours is nothing if not a tradition of speaking truth to power. Abraham does it to God near Sodom and Gemorrah. Moses does so to Pharaoh in Egypt. And in this week’s portion, Jethro speaks truth to Moses in the wilderness.

“The thing you are doing is not right,” Jethro admonishes Moses for hoarding his power. “You cannot do it alone.” Fearing that the centralization of power will cause a rebellion and wear Moses down besides, Jethro advises Moses to delegate authority by creating a more layered, and shared, system of government.

Even so, Jethro’s admonition invites some skepticism. After all, hadn’t Moses already succeeded (with God’s and Aaron’s help) at bringing the people out of slavery?

The answer is contained in another question that Moses himself once put to Pharaoh: “How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me?”

The premise of the question reveals two important facts. First, it tells us that Pharaoh, by his refusal to acknowledge God’s might, is almost intractably stubborn. Second, it shows that Pharaoh is a narcissist, utterly devoid of humility. Taken together, it is not hard to conclude that Pharaoh’s sense of self-importance is what ultimately dooms him as a leader. His absolute power corrupted him absolutely.

And so, just as Pharaoh became hard-hearted and self-important, so too does Jethro fear Moses (however humble he was at the outset) doing the same.

The Book of Deuteronomy recognizes the risk Jethro foresaw when it requires the king of Israel to keep a copy of the law and “read it all his life so that he may learn to revere the Eternal, his God . . . [and] not act haughtily toward his fellows.” The mandate to know and keep the Israelite constitution, and thereby share power, teaches the king humility and that no one, not even he, is above the law.

Not long ago, after declaring that our nation is in crisis, a certain candidate for the presidency went on to proclaim: “I am your voice. I alone can fix it.”

Jethro teaches otherwise, for none of us alone can judge, or govern or “fix” an entire nation. A government of laws and not men depends on the humility, good faith and participation of us all.

Rabbi John Franken is the spiritual leader at Bolton Street Synagogue and president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis.

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