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Torah Sparks

February 2, 2002 - 5762

Prepared by Rabbi David L. Blumenfeld, PhD
Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations

Annual Cycle: Exodus 18:1-20:23; Hertz, p. 288; Etz Hayim, p. 432
Triennial Cycle I: Exodus 18:1-18:27; Hertz, p. 288; Etz Hayim, p.432
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-13; 7:1-6; 9:5-6; Hertz, p. 302; Etz Hayim, p. 451

This Shabbat’s Torah Portion Summary

(18:1-12) Moses' father-in-law Jethro comes to visit, bringing Moses' wife Zipporah and his two sons.

(18:12-27) Jethro advises Moses to appoint officers and judges to help him lead the people, creating the political structure for living by the Torah.

(19:1-6) The people prepare to accept the covenant and receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, where they will become a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation."

(19:7-15) Moses tells the elders to prepare the people to receive the revelation.

(19:16-25) Dramatic phenomena accompany God's manifestation at Mount Sinai. Moses ascends the mountain.

(20:1-14) The Ten Commandments.

(20:15-18) The people are terrified by God's power, and they beg Moses to mediate between them and God.

(20:19-23) More commandments concerning the Altar.

This Shabbat's Theme: "Follow The Leader"

Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening.. But when Moses' father-in-law (Yitro) saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, "What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone? ...The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well..." (Exodus 18:13-14, 17-18)

  1. Noting that Jethro was deeply upset with Moses, an ancient sage suggests that what disturbed Jethro was not that Moses appeared overworked but that Moses had become full of self-importance. Moses, he says, was "behaving like a king who sits on his throne while all the people stand." Most interpreters (though) do not criticize Moses for holding himself above his people...but they do cite the dangerous consequences of his decision to judge the people by himself. Rabbi Joshua, for instance, comments that Jethro's warning to Moses was a practical one. He saw that Moses had taken on too much. The work was overwhelming. fearful that Moses would collapse from exhaustion, Jethro told him, "They will tire you out and cause you to fail in your leadership of them." (Harvey Fields, A Torah Commentary For Our Times, Vol. II, p. 44)
  2. "Moses was shepherding the flock (of Yitro)..." (Ex. 3:1) When he was doing so, Moses used to prevent the larger sheep from grazing before the smaller ones, letting the smaller ones loose first to feed on the tender grass. He would then let the older sheep loose and allow them to feed on the ordinary grass. Lastly, he would let the strongest sheep loose to feed on the toughest grass. Whereupon God said: "He who knows how to look after sheep, bestowing upon each the care that it deserves, shall come and tend My people" (Exodus Rabbah 2:2)
  3. Another interpretation of "Moses was shepherding...": Our Rabbis said that when Moses was tending the flock of Yitro in the wilderness, a little kid escaped from him. He ran after it until it came to a shady place where there was a pool of water. The kid stopped to drink. When Moses approached it, he said: "I did not know that you ran away because of thirst; you must be weary." So he placed the kid on his shoulder and carried him. Thereupon God said: "Because you have such mercy in leading the flock of a mortal, you will assuredly tend to my flock Israel" (ibid)
  4. What does it take to be a Jewish leader in America these days? Clearly, the greatest leader in Jewish history (Moses) wouldn't stand a chance. He wasn't wealthy; his best-known asset was humility, which would not have moved him up the ranks of board memberships very quickly; and he wasn't an orator - in fact, he stuttered. (Gary Rosenblatt, The Jewish Week, June 13, 1997)
  5. A leader who commences a deed but does not complete it loses his place at the head of his people. When God wishes to punish Israel, He sends them unworthy leaders. When a person is able to receive abuse smilingly he is worthy of becoming a leader in Israel. (Nahman Bratzlaver, (1770-1811), famous Hasidic Rabbi, Podolla, Sefer ha-Middot, (1912), p. 60-61)
  6. What Is Leadership? Leaders should have a vision, a sense of purpose. Leaders don't force others to go along with them - they bring them along. Leaders demand much of others, but also give much of themselves. Good leaders are not "lone rangers" - they combine talents and efforts of many people. Leaders know that when there are two opinions on an issue, one is not bound to be wrong. Successful leaders are emotionally and intellectually oriented to the future - not wedded to the past. Leaders believe in unity rather than conformity and strive to achieve consensus out of conflict. Leaders make the right things happen when they are supposed to happen. (Moshe Edelman, United Synagogue, Director, Department of Leadership Development, Resource Library, June 20, 2000)

"Sparks" for Discussion:

In our tradition, Moses has become a paradigm for those wishing to learn how to be an effective leader of people. Even his foibles, an example of which we see in this week's Torah reading, are instructive. In our time, we all recognize that good synagogue leadership is a crucial need in our respective Jewish communities. In this regard, therefore, let us ask ourselves some questions.

What qualities should a synagogue leader have? How should synagogues identify and recruit potential new leaders? After identifying such potential new leaders shouldn't they be given some sortof advanced training? Is "OJT" (on the job training) sufficient to run a synagogue nowadays?

It is in the area of synagogue leadership training that the United Synagogue does some of its best work. For instance:

  1. More and more synagogue vice-presidents are attending the SULAM Program which provides them with essential information before they become synagogue president.
  2. The IMUN Program provides congregants with religious skills and knowledge to help lead services, read Torah, etc.
  3. Synagogue Board of Directors training programs and practical workshops are offered regularly and with great skill at USCJ regional conferences and at its conventions.

We are all aware that synagogue leaders are so vital to Jewish life and that the modern synagogue is a complex institution. Leadership in it is not intuitive. Clearly, it requires learning and personal religious commitment. Would you want to step up to this marvelous responsibility? If so, contact SULAM or IMUN through our website -

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