Parashat Yitro

Friday, January 25, 2019 /19 Shevat, 5779
Parashat Yitro Exodus 18:1-20:23

Dear Friends,

True leadership requires humility. Admittedly, either or both may be lacking among certain persons in the seats of world power today, but studies in true leadership reveal a healthy measure of humility.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, a scholar of presidential leadership, notes the compelling humility which characterized Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, admittedly our two greatest presidents.

And, Torah reveals it today, as well. Our portion commences with this verse, “Now Yitro, the priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses, heard…” (Ex. 18:1) It looks innocuous, until we see what Rashi, our 11th century Torah commentator writes.

Rashi taught, “Here, Yitro was honoring himself through Moses, saying, ‘I am the father-in-law of the leader.’ But in the past, Moses used to ascribe the greatness to his father-in-law, as it is stated (Ex. 4:38) ‘And he returned to Yitro, his father-in-law.'”

Rashi identified a verse in which Moses referenced Yitro, as a means of teaching that we are most revered not when we sing our own praises, but when we defer our greatness to that of another.

Years ago when I was a young assistant rabbi at a major synagogue back east, I had the privilege to work with a very talented and energetic cantor who was highly prized both in the community and nationally. And she could sing her own praises, yet when she would bring guest cantors to sing on our celebrated bima, she extolled them as superb singers and praised them for being our honored guests. Once, after a particularly stirring Shabbat Service at which a couple young stars in the Reform Movement had sung, our cantor blurted out, “Can I pick ’em, or what!” Yes, it applauded her, but it respected and esteemed our guests. But more – it linked them, like Moses and Yitro, in their honor, and it humbled our cantor. It was a moment I haven’t forgotten, after 30 years, for it taught the lesson of humility, even in a grand moment.

Moses and Yitro come to remind us of the need to measure leadership by humility. It is as powerful as achievement.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Doug Kohn