Jethro – Rabbi Paula Marcus

Paula Marcus: I was moved to share a story that comes from the Jewish tradition but since the Bible is such a core text for so many, I thought it would be worthwhile sharing this story of transition that helps build my faith and helps me understand some of the contours of what we could be experiencing during times of transition and how in fact it is better to have vulnerable opportunities than to shut down during times of transition, which is I think, for many of us counterintuitive. So it took me back to the time in my people’s history, when we were wandering in the wilderness. Forty years. God forbid it should always be that long. But forty years in the wilderness and the people had just come through a very foundational time enslaved in Egypt, just free, passing through the dry land of the Red Sea. The sea opened and there they were spit out on the shore. They had achieved freedom. They were trying to build community. So here were these folks who had been scarred by all those years of slavery and they had been thrown together in this place, the word in Hebrew for wilderness is ‘Midbar’ and it is related to the Hebrew word ‘Midabare’ which means “to speak.” So we think of the wilderness as this place that speaks a lot of voices.

Right. How did they find the ability to become a community? How did they become a people when they had just been freed and they were surrounded by conditions that, let’s just say, that are not always very forgiving, the wilderness. They want autonomy because they have been oppressed. Think of all the times in our lives when we have been oppressed. What do we want? Right. What’s the first thing when we leave the house when we are young and we go off? We want to be able to be in control of our destiny. As slaves that’s what they would expect. But also having been slaves, are dependent and who are they dependent upon, their leader, Moses.

Let us just talk for some minutes about Moses. Moses did not sign up for this job. Many of us haven’t always signed up for the job that we are given. We get deployed, that’s one of Rabbi Zalman’s phrases. He was off to his next deployment, is what he said when he died. That is what he felt would be happening. And so here is Moses. Moses who was born under slavery and his mother hid him, right, as the myth tells us in a basket in the Nile. Who finds him? – The Pharaoh’s daughter. And where does she bring him? – To the palace. Moses grows up as a royalty. He does not grow up as an Israelite. He is outside of that experience of slavery. His first awakening comes when he sees a taskmaster beating an Israelite and then what does he do? He kills the taskmaster and he runs off. He runs away because he saw somebody noticed he killed somebody. So here is this guy who stumbles upon this burning bush, notices it first of all and God says, “Guess what? You are going to help liberate the people.” And he says, “Forget it. I can’t even speak. How am I going to do this?” And God says, “I am going to send your brother to go with you, Aaron.” And so here is Moses. All kinds of things had to happen. Miracles, faith, trust and the Israelites are wandering about in the wilderness. It is a huge job. I don’t know that I would want to do this. Would you? Really, let us just say. So here are the people that are complaining. They are whining about water. They are like, “You know what this place is so awful. We would rather go back to Egypt where we had melon and cucumbers and all this great stuff. We will be slaves again. Just take us back to what we knew.” And Moses is like, “No. No you have to trust. You have to have faith.” And how long can he keep this up. How long can you keep up being a leader when you feel like you are under circumstances that are so challenging and you have your brother, you have your sister who even, they at times they rebel, Moses and Aaron. But still it’s really hard.


So in that time when he ran off because he killed the taskmaster, he went to a place where he met his wife, Zipporah, who was not an Israelite, by the way. All right. He had children, outside of the Israelite people, an outsider. When he was deployed back to Egypt, where did he leave his wife? – With her parents. Two kids and his wife, they are still back with his father in law. So after some time his father-in-law, Jethro who we call Yithro schleping, his wife and his kids and said, “Dude, you married her. You have children here. You have to take care of your family.” But, Jethro himself is someone to contend with. He is a Midianite priest. He is a leader in his own right. He is coming to see because he has heard about the exodus and all the miracles. And he wants to check it out. So here he comes, with Zippora and the kids and he is so happy for Moses and the Israelites. They share wonderful stories. They have festive meals. They share bread together. Yithro decides to stick around to see what’s going on here. He is not just going to leave his daughter and grand kids here. He wants to see what’s up and so the next day he watches Moses in action and what he sees is that Moses sits outside the tent and there is this humongous line of people who come to him for advice for judgment around situations they can’t figure out themselves. He is the leader. He watches and that evening he says to Moses, “We got to talk.” And so he brings Moses to his tent and the two of them sit down and he says, “Listen. This model, you cannot sustain this. This is not going to work.” And Moses is like, “Yeah. I get it. It is not going so well for me here.” And Yithro says to him, “You have got to find other leaders. And you have to find people who have appetite, people who have wisdom; people who have talent and you have got to develop them. You have got to help them bring out their gifts to your community and you have to set up a system whereby not everybody depends upon you because you need balance in your life and because it is not good for you and guess what it is not good for everybody else.”
So in this core text we have this model of an outsider, Jethro coming to witness what has been going on among the people and he holds out to Moses a model of shared leadership. Now there are a lot of reasons, but Moses, amazingly enough, is open to being acted upon. So he in his grace shows the people that he can take advice from an outsider from his father in law, from this Midianite priest. He is able to integrate Yithro’s wisdom. He trusts it enough and he incorporates into the emerging body of practice for this new community. I find this to be something that is very hopeful and radical frankly within a core text. Because remember we are talking about a formational time in the people’s history in the tradition, and it is I would say subversive because when you think about people who have been slaves who are trying to create community, you think of a hierarchical structure being needed because who is going to manage all this? And here is Jethro and here is Moses saying to us, it is not about one person. It is not about a leader and when you are in a time of transition it better not be. When you are in what we called liminal place it cannot be one person’s job to carry this forward. We all know this right but the question that I am asking myself, what is working me is how in a time of transition, as a leader am I going to be open to the gifts, and the wisdom that emerges from the community? How am I going to trust and what do I need as a leader to be that open Moses. I am not on his level. I am not claiming that in any way, shape or form. God forbid. But the question that really rings for us, I would say, any of us who are leaders and who find in our own lives that we are in transition. How can we model that sense of vulnerability?

I loved that during the break someone wrote ‘vulnerability builds trust’. Right. ‘Vulnerability builds trust.’ How does that happen in our lives? How do we put ourselves in position, like with Moses, where we are open to listening to the Jethros who come our way? We take the time, we take the wisdom in and the advice and those are the questions that are working me at this point.