Parashat Yitro: We are called to help others, with humility

Elizabeth Hersh is Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel.

By Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh

Parashat Yitro is the ideal reading for a discussion about leadership and delegation. Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, brings Zipporah and her two sons to Moses in the wilderness. After a reunion that involves sharing the accomplishments made only through the strength and love of God, Yitro praises the Eternal One and brings a burnt offering for God.

The next morning, this sage father-in-law witnesses the tedious and exhausting work of Moses acting as judge and arbiter among the Israelites. Moses was available from morning until evening to settle disputes. His burden was obviously onerous and impractical for one lonely soul. Yitro offers the advice of a man whose wisdom matched his experience, if not years. Fortunately for Moses, he readily accepts the guidance of his father-in-law. 

I have learned two lessons from Chapter 18 in Exodus. The first is one of humility. Moses is the undeniable leader of the Israelite people. He has witnessed and experienced God as no other human being. Yet, he embraces Yitro’s advice in a manner befitting one who is humble. 

Humility is a lost art. Our tradition teaches us through Psalm 85:12 that “To find truth, bend down humbly.” Moreover, we learn that “God revealed Himself in a bush, to teach us that the loftiest may be found in the lowliest.” We would rather sing our own praise than let our actions speak volumes. We praise individuals for all accomplishments, yet when is the last time you found yourself acting with humility or recognizing this trait in another person?

The larger lesson I reap from this story is one of offering to help another human soul. Yitro was not obliged to offer his advice. He saw a problem and stepped forward with a suggestion. Perhaps it was because he cared about Moses or he was concerned about the emotional welfare of his daughter and grandsons. Nevertheless, does his motive really matter? He was there to help.

When is the last time you offered to help another person? I see too many people playing “armchair” quarterback, knowing exactly what to do in a situation but unwilling to offer a word, a hand or a hug. Moreover, I hear people saying they want to be asked to lend a hand, yet they are reluctant to step forward unless properly invited. Is it easier to say “I told you so” rather than to personally involve yourself? You, as well as I, hear a bevy of excuses of why not to help. And if I hear “I am too busy” one more time …

Morris Mandel includes a story in his book, “Stories for Public Speakers,” about an old man who carried an oil can. “[W]henever he went through a door that creaked, he would pour a little oil on the hinges. If the gate was hard to open, he would oil the latch,” the story continues. “And so he passed through life lubricating the hard places and making it easier for those who came after him.

Fill up your oil can and go. Walk your obvious paths and explore new ones. Look high but mostly low. I promise you will never run out of oil.