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Torah Reflections

Yitro: Interdependence

This week’s Torah portion includes the revelation at Mount Sinai, the giving of the Ten Commandments and the acceptance of God’s rule by the Children of Israel, but I’m not going to comment on any of that.

Instead, I want to focus on Moshe and the challenge of leadership.   The Israelites were not an easy group to deal with it.  They complained constantly and longed for the relative comfort of their former lives in Egypt. Only Yitro/Jethro, Moshe’s Midianite father-in-law, seemed ready to appreciate God’s benevolent power.

Yitro watched as Moshe sat from morning until night adjudicating the endless disputes among the people. He offered a bit of unsolicited advice to his son-in-law:

This thing you are doing is not good. You will burn yourself out completely, you as well as the people who are with you. This matter is too heavy for you; you can’t do it alone. (18:18).

Moshe is often described as humble, so it is no surprise that he was able to accept Yitro’s criticism of his leadership and to reach out and ask others for help.  On the other hand, he is also described as the greatest of all of Israel’s prophets. If that’s the case, why did Moshe need an outsider to point this out?

I’d like to suggest that even though he was arguably the most enlightened person in Jewish history, there were still parts of Moshe that were not yet fully awake. When those unawakened parts seized control, even Moshe’s clear prophetic vision was clouded by delusion. He was unable to see for himself what others saw so clearly.

This is all the more true for the rest of us. We all have our blind spots, aspects of ourselves that are invisible to us but all too visible to those around us.

Like Moshe, many of us have a not-quite conscious belief that we can and should be able to do it ourselves. It’s not surprising that we are conditioned this way. After all, most of us live in a culture that exalts individualism, views criticism as attack, and regards asking for help as a sign of weakness.

However much we may believe that to be the case, the truth is that it is utterly impossible to do much of anything by ourselves. We rely on infrastructure created by others. We rely on education and training received from others. We work and play in institutions sustained and supported by others.  We are completely and inevitably interconnected with each other in more ways than we recognize. We are like fish oblivious to the water in which they dwell.

We dance between independence and interdependence, all but blind to it. The Kotzker Rebbe describes it this way:

If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you.

Once we recognize what Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has called our “invisible lines of connection”, asking for help becomes not only easy but natural. And the funny thing is, we become not less effective in our lives but stronger, more resilient and more effective. Just like Moshe.

May you be blessed to see clearly what has been hidden from you. May you see the dance of independence and interdependence as it unfolds in your own life. And may help be forthcoming however and whenever you need it.

Ameyn, keyn yehi ratzon. Amen, may it be so.

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