Tuesday, January 31, 2012

If you had followed my advice... / Yitro

Harry Truman once said: “I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it.” What is true for advising children, is true for adults, according to humorist Henry Wheeler Shaw, who said, “When a man comes to me for advice, I find out the kind of advice he wants, and I give it to him.”

Receiving advice can be tough. How many of us deep down feel that if we need advice, it’s because there’s something lacking in us? Or perhaps that seeking or accepting advice from a certain source is demeaning? Proffering advice is no easier: Will the recipient follow it? And if they ignore it, how will we feel?

This week’s parashah, Yitro, gives us a beautiful model for giving sound advice in a way that it can be received.

When the Israelites first encounter Yitro after coming out of Egypt, Yitro finds Moses serving as judge for the entire nation of Israel. The people stand in line “from morning until evening.” (Reminds me of the MVA).
…[Yitro] said, “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?” Moses replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.” But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! (Exodus 18:14-19)
Moses, who demands that Pharaoh release the Israelites from his suffocating grasp, helps launch the Ten Plagues, leads the Israelites out of Egypt and through the Reed Sea, and who sees them through a war with Amalek, now needs advice on how to do something as simple as sitting in judgment? Piece of cake!

Apparently not. The line of disputants flows out Moses’ tent like a snaking river in the desert for who knows how long. (Again, picture the MVA.) Yitro recommends a far more efficient system:
You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. (Exodus 18:21-22)
We are told that Moses graciously heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said (Exodus 18:24).

It seems to me that there are four things Yitro does to make it easier for Moses to accept his excellent advice.

First, Yitro blesses Moses: Blessed be the Lord… who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh… He then brings a sacrifice for God. What a powerful affirmation of who Moses is and all he has done!

Second, Yitro focuses not on his curriculum vitae, but rather on his relationship with Moses. While the parashah opens by formally identifying him as Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law (Exodus 18:1), with his title upfront, in the passage recounting the advice he imparts to Moses, Yitro is referred to only as Moses’ father-in-law and this no fewer than five times. Yitro understands the crucial value of establishing a close and trusting relationship before presuming to dispense advice. This way, the advice is accepted as a gift of love, rather than a critique of the recipient.

Third, Yitro does not present himself as an authority. He does not point out that as priest of Midian, he himself is a judge. Rather, he first appeals to the needs of the people: What is this thing that you are doing to the people? (Exodus 18:14) He follows this with an appeal to Moses’ welfare: you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well (Exodus 18:18). Yitro expresses concern for others, not his own special knowledge or superiority.

Fourth, Yitro delivers his advice, says no more, and excuses himself. Then Moses bade his father-in-law farewell, and he went his way to his own land (Exodus 18:27). Yitro does not stick around to see if Moses has meticulously followed his advice; he trusts Moses to be the leader he is.

Small wonder that Moses can accept his father-in-law’s advice. Yitro has affirmed him and emphasized their close familial relationship. Yitro’s motivation is the welfare of the people and of Moses, not his own self-aggrandizement. And having dispensed his advice, he does not remain to judge Moses’ implementation.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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