By Miriam Abramovich
“And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife (Zipporah) to Moses in the wilderness where he was encamped, at the mountain of God.” (Exodus 18:5)
This is the setting for the opening of Parashat Yitro. If you have some familiarity with the Exodus story, you can probably paint a quick picture of this moment in your mind. A heartfelt family reunion played out at an encampment of thousands of weary and bedraggled souls gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai.
This week we find the Jewish people in a most vulnerable state. They are physically and emotionally exhausted and feeling quite uncertain about their future. Added to that tumult are mountains trembling, shofars blaring, smoke rising, thunder and lightning, and God issuing commandments. “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.” (Exodus 20:15) Yitro provides a dramatic portrayal of this foundational moment where learn what it means to be a Jew. Here, amidst the din of human chaos, we make our spiritual brit, or covenant, with God and receive the Ten Commandments, the vital instructions that guide us as a people.
In addition to its spiritual significance, this parsha is also well known as a study in leadership. Within the text we are granted a small window into the work involved in keeping this camp of thousands of souls up and running. Moses is going from morning to night, engaged in mediation, settling disputes and caring for the people. Jethro, after observing his son-in-law in action, worries that Moses will tire himself from all of this effort. He offers this simple advice to Moses: delegate and distribute the workload among the people, appoint leaders to help with this burden. Moses follows suit, embracing the power of shared effort in achieving a shared goal.
I can’t help but find this story evocative of daily life today. In many of our households, we experience our own version of a biblical din. Phones pinging, children in need assistance, emails flying, packages being delivered, cooking to do, scheduling to manage, and occasional metaphorical smoke rising as a result of an endless list of responsibilities, emotional labor, and mental load. Life is chaotic, and it is hard to manage it alone.
In reflecting on the idea of shared labor raised in this week’s parsha, Rabbi Margie Klein Ronkin notes “at first, it can seem so much easier to work on our own. Trusting other people to share our burdens is scary and messy … Yitro teaches us that we must involve more voices in leadership, share more responsibility, expose ourselves to more messiness and diversity.” How poignant that Jethro and Moses’ experience with shared burdens remains so germane to this day.
Much like the Jewish people, the modern family is most healthy when the responsibilities of managing a household are shared between parents, partners, extended family or chosen family — those with whom we choose build life and community. Despite the chaos, home is where we find the deepest sense of clarity about our identity and purpose: what it means to be our authentic selves. Our home is where we make our covenants, and set the parameters that guide us as individuals and as a family unit. Perhaps now more than ever life requires us to share the load of leadership and life, just like at the foot of Mt. Sinai, we cannot find meaning and purpose alone.
Miriam Abramovich is Chief Operating Officer at the Buffalo Jewish Federation, and gratefully shares the labors of life with her beloved husband, Sam Abramovich, PhD.