A critic who is also a counselor

Ruhama Gebel-Redman is the Headmaster of Neveh Channah High School for Girls, named in memory of Anna Ehrman

Ruchama Gebel Redman e1706511243529I write these words in days of great pain and bloodshed, when war rages strong; days of national introspection; days when the highest of prices are paid and the lives of the very best of our men and women are being sacrificed. 

These stormy days of war came upon us on the festival of Simchat Torah, the day we started the weekly Torah reading anew, from the Book of Bereishit.  And lo and behold, we are already deep into the Book of Shemot and the battles have not yet ceased. The Torah portions we are currently reading evolve around the concepts of Redemption, Exodus and the story of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness; the story of a nation of slaves setting out to an unknown land; a great national voyage of self-discovery and self-determination, whereby a sovereign nation is born, one which undertakes the mission of spreading the word of God in the world – a mission that entails lifelong responsibility.  As the Israelites wander through the scorching wilderness, they are, as yet, a set of tribes bound together in one great nomadic camp.  In fact, it is a strange camp of people: a congregation plowing through the turbulent terrain in search of its destiny; all the while, raising its eyes towards the horizon where lies the Promised Land, and where it hopes to live as a real nation. 

As our own current war rages on, there are many ways to connect to all that is happening, and numerous points of interface through which one can log on, as it were, in order to make sense of all that is happening.    

But getting back to the days of the desert, at the head of this camp of former-slaves, one plagued by uncertainties and great quandaries, stands a unique leader: Moshe Rabbeinu.  Moshe is an unparalleled figure, both in stature as well as in vigor. 

In our portion, Moshe’s father-in-law Yitro pays a visit to the Israelite camp at a delicate time. The Israelites – a mass of liberated slaves – have just left Egypt, and have not yet formed a clear identity. In fact, the objective of the journey through the desert is, as yet, unclear to most of the wandering Israelites.  Similarly, Moshe’s leadership, still in its initial stages, is somewhat vague, as it gradually molds into shape.  The Midrash describes this precarious state of affairs, “Moshe was a novice in prophecy”.  Although the Torah attests to the fact that “they [the people] believed in God and Moshe his servant”, they had not yet achieved the level of “and they shall believe in you forever”, for they had not yet witnessed the great Divine Revelation of the giving of the Torah.  They were, at that moment, in an uncertain state, in a wilderness; led by a novice-leader paving a new way for himself and his people. 

At this precise moment, Yitro appears, bringing with him Moshe’s wife and children and a heap of good advice. 

An encounter of this kind is bound to lead to an intergenerational crisis within the family.  I would even venture to say that, at least through a modern-day perspective, the most natural, and even justified, outcome of such a meeting can only be an explosive one. 

In our times, it is commonly accepted that when a father-in-law comes to visit his son-in-law on the job, the latter having recently taken on a new position, such a visit would hardly be perceived by the son-in-law as an opportunity for growth; rather, it would be seen as an act of criticism or condescension on the part of the father-in-law.  Moreover, if the older father-in-law dared to offer advice pertaining to the son-in-law’s working methods or level of efficiency – such advice would probably not be taken kindly, to say the least, and would most likely cause a big blow-up between the two family members.  In light of this, Yitro’s successful visit is all the more wondrous.  Especially when another instance of criticism directed towards Moshe – by Korach and his congregation – ended in catastrophe, the loss of lives, and great social upheaval. 

What was it then that made Yitro’s visit such a success?  What turned this episode of critical advice into a trigger factor in Moshe’s tremendous growth as a leader, a judge and God’s direct messenger who spreads His word?  What was it about this encounter that initiated productivity rather than destruction?  Was it the specific timing, or was it, perhaps, the unique relationship that had already existed between these two great personas?  Or maybe it was Yitro’s rich life experience as Priest of Midyan?  Or the latter’s pleasant conduct and outstanding character?  Alternatively, might it have been Moshe’s inherent humility and his infinite attentiveness?  How might we explain the phenomenal success of this encounter?

“And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moshe sat to judge the people; and the people stood about Moshe from the morning unto the evening. And when Moshe’s father-in-law saw all that he did to the people, he said: ‘What is this thing that thou doest to the people? Why sit thou thyself alone, and all the people stand about thee from morning unto evening?’ And Moshe said unto his father-in-law: ‘Because the people come unto me to inquire of God; when they have a matter, it cometh unto me; and I judge between a man and his neighbor, and I make them know the statutes of God, and His laws.’ And Moshe’s father-in-law said unto him: ‘The thing that thou do is not good. Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee; for the thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone.” [Shemot 18: 13–18]

Yitro arrives at the Israelites’ camp in wake of the rumors he had heard.  This is precisely the man he was: He hears, he hearkens and he acts without delay. 

Moreover, he does not come alone, but brings Moshe’s family with him to the desert, and becomes fully present in the moment – “And Yitro rejoices” at all he hears of the great salvation God had brought upon the nation.  He brings offerings to the Lord and gives respect to all the elders of Israel by immersing himself in the experience.  All this happens on the first day of his visit. 

“And it came to pass on the morrow“.  One morrow is not like the other.  This is not the morrow of the Sin of the Spies when the people wake up and realize the enormity of their sin.  On this particular morrow we see how insights are internalized and immediately implemented; we are witness to a transformation from listening mode to action mode.  As Rashi so aptly interprets – “this is the morrow following Yom Kippur.”  After a day of bonding, full-fledged presence, observation and learning, comes the morrow, when the previous day’s teachings are processed and pondered upon.

As to the fact that Yitro’s advice was so readily accepted, it seems most probable that this was due to the latter’s respectful and respecting presence; his attentiveness and curiosity on the first day of the visit; his immersing himself completely into the Israelites’ experience and rejoicing with them at all that had transpired; his sitting down to eat with the elders of Israel and Aharon.  It is this entire array of engaging action on Yitro’s part that set into motion a readiness to listen and to hearken on Moshe’s part. 

As educators and educational leaders, we should be asking ourselves:  How does Yitro see Moshe the judge? Through which prism is Yitro observing his son-in-law?  When does Yitro pose the question as to Moshe’s working methods?

Yitro understands that he is an external factor to this new “desert-space”, despite his vast knowledge and rich experience as the Priest of Midyan.  He therefore takes a day to learn, observing the proceedings at hand silently.  Only when evening falls, and the day’s activities come to a close, does Yitro venture to ask about how administrative decisions are taken; how Moshe passes judgement; what Moshe’s priorities are and what his daily schedule looks like.  But the first thing Yitro does is show empathy. This is followed by curiosity. And only then – upon the firm foundations of empathy and benevolent curiosity – does Yitro step into the shoes of the critic, offering the perspective of a life-long leader with rich experience in public service. 

Yitro is careful with his phrasing and says to Moshe: “Why sit thou thyself alone?  And all the people stand about thee from morning unto evening?”  The Torah itself, it appears, adopts the same attitude when it describes Moshe in the previous verse thus: “And Moshe sat to judge the people; and the people stood about Moshe from the morning unto the evening.”

While the Torah renders a factual description of Moshe’s work day, Yitro – using the exact same words – offers advice as to such a work’s day value, and says:  ‘The thing that thou do is not good” and goes on to explain that leadership has to be exercised wisely with long term planning and efficiency. 

What becomes very apparent is that the ability to listen to constructive criticism and accept it, is contingent upon the listener’s full belief that the critic is “on his side” and has the former’s good in mind, as well as the success of his mission. 

It is true that Moshe is also a humble man who knows how to accept words of criticism, but this does not detract from Yitro’s wisdom when it comes to offering constructive criticism:

“If thou shalt do this thing, and God command thee so, then thou shalt be able to endure, and all this people also shall go to their place in peace.”

And Moshe’s reaction:  “So Moshe hearkened to the voice of his father-in-law, and did all that he had said.”

It follows then that Yitro’s visit to the wilderness, at a very delicate time, when the Israelites are metamorphosing into a nation, turns into a great learning curve and an opportunity for growth which stems from Yitro’s extensive experience as leader.  Yitro turns from potential critic to a well-meaning counselor who gives priceless counsel, thus adding another crucial layer to Moshe’s character as leader. 

And, thus, in virtue of Moshe and Yitro’s heedfulness, their mutual empathy and curiosity – both Moshe and the people “go to their place in peace” and all ends well.  Even if Yitro, as some commentators claim, ultimately went back to Midyan, both the People of Israel as well as Moshe underwent a positive change as a result of Yitro’s visit.  The reason being that the entire encounter was one of quiet observation and wise and attentive discourse.  It was a beneficial educational process conducted with mutual respect and the engagement of both parties. 

One might equate the turbulent days in which we find ourselves to the days when we wandered through the desert as Israelite tribes on the way to becoming a nation in its land.  Now, too, we are on a journey of introspection, while fighting a war for our physical and spiritual survival against a cruel and barbarous enemy.  Despite the heavy price we must pay, we raise our eyes towards the horizon and forge ahead, engaging in action as well as in prayer.  May God help and protect us, and may this journey prove to be fruitful, such that we emerge all the stronger, more united and with greater clarity of vision. 

There are many leaders in the field, and many who take responsibility as the storm rages on and the battles continue; individuals who recruit themselves to the mission at hand – no matter how grueling it is – and continue to infuse life and spread light.  These leader-figures include our educators – men and women who serve as an anchor during these difficult times, creating a blessed routine which builds the next layer of our national and social consciousness.

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