Mark Charendoff is the President of The Jewish Funders Network, an international organization dedicated to advancing the quality and growth of philanthropy rooted in Jewish values. JFN’s members include independent philanthropists, foundation trustees and foundation professionals. JFN is not a grant-making institution, but seeks instead to provide funders with the means to enhance their intellectual capital, energize their giving, and form powerful new collaborations. www.jfunders.org. Mark can be reached at email@example.com
The portion of Yitro is certainly one of the easiest in the entire Bible from which to draw a dvar Torah. After all, it contains the 10 Commandments and the giving of the Torah. No challenge, especially compared to those stuck with parshiot in the middle of Leviticus. But before we get into the fire and thunder of Sinai, there is a lesser known story at the beginning of the parasha, a story that gives this portion its name, that merits the attention of those interested in leadership. For it is in this story that Moshe learns the very qualifications for leadership.
Moshe was having a very hard time governing the Jewish people. Slavery in Egypt was behind them, but the challenges of being an autonomous community had been thrust upon them quite suddenly and Moshe was at a loss. It was his non-Jewish father in law who observed his leadership style and method and chastised Moshe for shortchanging himself and his community. “You will surely become worn out – as well as this people that is with you – this matter is too hard for you, you will not be able to do it alone,” Yitro warned him. And then Yitro told Moshe that it was time for him to share his authority with others, to train the next generation of leaders who could help translate the word of God to the people and create a more just and caring society. What should these people look like? Yitro gave him a list;
1. Anshei Chail – people of accomplishment, of strength and courage
2. Yirei Elokim – people who fear God
3. Anshei Emet – people of truth
4. Sonei Betzah – people who hate bribes
And these people had a simple task – “they shall bring every major matter to you, and every minor matter they shall judge.” Perhaps it is this last statement that is the most important criteria of all. For Yitro created a system that can work only if those leaders involved had humility. After all, if they thought too highly of themselves and their abilities, there would be no matter that would be too great for them. There was no objective way of deciding what they should handle and what must go to Moses.
It was only their sense of humility that would force them to consult with others and, ultimately, to seek wisdom from a higher source.
And in our day, it is no different. With leadership comes authority. And with authority comes a great challenge: knowing when to exercise it and when to consult with others even though you are empowered to make a decision and go forward. It’s a tough balance. Not making a decision when you should is an abdication of responsibility. Making a decision when you ought not to is abuse of power.
This challenge must be one we grapple with as Jewish philanthropists and professional leaders. Just because we have the ability to dictate a decision doesn’t mean we ought to. Jewish leadership means having the humility to know when to consult with others and to recognize that there are people with more experience and perhaps more wisdom who can help guide you along the path. So before we get caught up in the drama of Sinai – of the lightning, the thunder and the spectacle – let’s listen to the small voices that are trying to guide us. Let’s listen to our friends, our teachers, and, occasionally, even our in-laws.