Weekly Torah Comentary – Yitro January 29, 2016

Exodus 18:1 – 20:23


This week’s Torah reading is identified by the name of Yitro, the Hebrew spelling of Jethro, who was the father-in-law of Moses.  In the opening verse, we learn that Jethro, a priest of Midian, has heard about all that God had done for Moses and for the people of Israel who had been enslaved in Egypt.  Even in the days long before internet, radio or TV, news spread all over the region.  Jethro decides to journey to where Moses and the children of Israel are encamped and brings along with him, Zipporah, the wife of Moses and her two sons, Gershom and Eliezer.

Now these four individuals – Jethro, Zipporah, Gershom and Eliezer – had not witnessed the miracles of God.  They didn’t see for themselves the plagues inflicted on Egypt nor the parting of the Red Sea for the Israelites and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army by that same body of water.  They only heard about it – but that was enough.  They believed the testimony that reached them and the ancient Rabbis opine that their faith in what God had done was all the more precious precisely because they had not ‘seen’ but believed. And isn’t that what FAITH is really all about?

If we only view the Exodus through the eyes of the Israelites who experienced it, we don’t get the full picture.  The faith of Jethro, Zipporah and the two sons must be included for it speaks directly to us who also were not present on that first Passover night.  It was not given to us to closet ourselves in a home whose firstborn child was spared because our parents obeyed the command of God through Moses to smear the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorway.  It was not our lot to hear the wails and screams of Egyptian parents when they discovered their firstborn shrouded in the coldness of death.

Yet because, like Jethro, we believe, our faith is indeed precious in God’s sight, as a later prophet, Habakkuk wrote, “The righteous shall live by faith.” 2:4  And of Abraham it is written that his faith was accounted to him as righteousness when he believed God’s promise of a son, even in his old age.

After Jethro arrived, Moses sat with him and told him in detail all of the wonders that God had performed for Israel.  Now, remember, Jethro was already a religious man – a priest of his own people.  But confronted with the works of the Hebrews’ God, his gods were exposed as non-gods and he worshiped the One True God.

This is their first meeting since Moses asked permission from Jethro to return to Egypt some time earlier. Have you ever wondered what Jethro thought back then? Did Moses have illusions of grandeur? Was he crazy? Wasn’t it a bit unlikely that he, who cared for Jethro’s sheep, was going to set free a nation of slaves? 

If Jethro thought those things, perhaps he also thought of his first meeting with Moses, after that ‘Egyptian stranger’ had protected Jethro’s daughters from ‘hoodlums’ trying to harass them.  We can surmise that a good relationship developed between Moses and Jethro through those forty years that Moses not only worked for Jethro but also became his son-in-law.  Whatever had transpired before now, it is clear that Moses and his father-in-law treated each other with great respect.

The next day, Jethro observes Moses spending long hours listening to and resolving disputes between the Israelites and proceeds to offer advice to his son-in-law.  Oh, dear! We all know how unsolicited advice has ruined many a ‘good’ relationship, don’t we?

Exodus 18:24  Moses listened to his father-in-law’s advice and followed his suggestions.

Another great example from the life of Moses. What he did not say is as important as what he did say – and do.  He did not say ‘I already knew that’ or ‘Look, I’ve come a long way since I left your tent, Jethro. I’m leading a nation of over 4 million people!‘ He didn’t protest, ‘The God of Israel spoke with me from a burning bush.  Who are you to give me advice?’

Moses was an exceedingly humble man.  He knew how to accept advice with grace and modesty, a rare quality in any generation. Moses was not a man who thought he had all the answers; he did not resent advice from Jethro, even when he had not asked for it.  I venture to say that after being raised in the palace of Pharaoh, accustomed to wealth and prestige and then banishing himself to the simple life of a shepherd in Midian, Moses had ample time to bring his ego under control, to develop the humility he would need to be an effective servant of God when the time came for him to step into his destiny…at 80 years of age no less!  Great power and a forceful personality are not the distinctive hallmarks of a great leader in God’s eyes.  Humility is.

In Tune with Torah this week:  Giving advice can be a tricky situation; so is receiving it. Are we quick to offer ‘unsolicited advice’ which may actually be just our own opinion about what someone else is doing or not doing?

How do we handle it when someone else gives us advice? Do we resent it? Dismiss it without consideration because of pride, ego?

True humility is not weakness; it is strength of character that manifests in a teachable spirit. That doesn’t mean that every piece of advice you are given is always spot on.  It may or may not be.  But it does mean that you are humble enough to consider what is said, be honest with yourself before God and then decide your course of action without any negative feeling toward the other person.

Weekly Torah Commentary – Shoftim August 20, 2015

Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

In this week’s Torah lesson we read a fascinating instruction to the king.

“When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he must write for himself a copy of this Torah on a scroll before the levitical priests” (Deut. 17:18). The passage furthur instructs the king that he must “read it all the days of his life” so that he will be God-fearing and never break God’s commandments. But there is another reason also: so that he will “not begin to feel superior to his brethren” or as another translation puts it: “so that his heart be not haughty over his brothers”.

In short: The king was required to have humility. The most powerful in the land should not feel himself to be the most powerful in the land.

To be sure the king is given other commandments and Solomon’s failures can be directly traced to the deterioration of the humility which he so beautifully exhibited at the beginning of his reign.

When any leader, religious or political, begins to feel that because he is ‘above’ the people he is also ‘above’ the law, that nation or group will soon have a tyrant or dictator at the helm. The Bible knows nothing of leadership without humility. Ultimately, the arrogance of power will produce its own downfall. It is inevitable and history proves it to be so.

The Torah’s insistence on humility is much more than an urging to “be nice”. Humility is essential to leadership. Maimonides, the great Jewish sage, commented as follows:
Just as the Torah grants him [the king] great honor and obliges everyone to respect him, so it commands him to be lowly and empty at heart, as it says: ‘My heart is empty within me’ (Ps. 109:22). Nor should he treat Israel with overbearing haughtiness, for it says, “so that his heart be not haughty over his brothers” (Deut. 17:20).

He should be gracious and merciful to the small and the great, involving himself in their good and welfare. He should protect the honor of even the humblest of men. When he speaks to the people as a community, he should speak gently, as it says, “Listen my brothers and my people….” (1 Chronicles 28:2), and similarly, “If today you will be a servant to these people…” (1 Kings 12:7).

He should always conduct himself with great humility. There was none greater than Moses, our teacher. Yet he said: “What are we? Your complaints are not against us” (Ex. 16:8). He should bear the nation’s difficulties, burdens, complaints and anger as a nurse carries an infant. (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 2:6)

The Torah model of God-fearing leadership is Moses who is described as “very humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3).

Moses was hardly meek, timid or bashful. Rather Moses refused to ‘lord it over’ the people. He honored those under his charge, considered them important and pleaded with God on their behalf. Humility doesn’t mean demeaning yourself; it means properly honoring others. We read in the Ethics of the Fathers: “Who is honored? One who honors others.” Pirkei Avot 4:1

God’s love and care extends to all, regardless of rank or position. We, and especially a leader, must do likewise.

Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin said: “The greatest source of sin is to forget we are children of the king.” We are all members of a royal family and must act as if we are. And the mark of true royalty is humility.

In Tune with Torah this week = examining our own attitude toward others whether we are leaders or not. Do we readily honor and respect other people? Even when their opinions differ from ours? The humble are more concerned with giving honor to others than receiving it for themselves. True greatness is manifest by humility.

Shabbat Shalom