Today we are reading Parashat Yitro.
Last Shabbat we read Parashat Beshallah. Moses successfullygot the Jews out of Egypt, acrossthe sea of reeds and safe after the attack initiated by Amalek. Moses demonstrated his leadership as a diplomat in representing God to Pharoah and in uniting the Jewish people to leave Egypt. Moses demonstrated his leadership in amilitary context to defeat the attackers from Amalek
In this week’s parashah, Moses has to transform and transition his leadership role into that of a governor. Moses is hampered by not having previous government experience. He is further hampered by having to govern a nation with no experience of self-government.
Unlike the Yishuv in Israel, prior to independence in 1948 which was a comprehensive set of Jewish community organizations, there were no institutions of civil society. There were no courts, no local governments, no community service agencies. There were obviously no workers’ unions nor a free press. Moreover, this was not a society resident in their native territory to which everyone was familiar.
Moses had the task of leading this diverse group of tribes through a wilderness to a destination on roads not previously travelled by them. Moses did not have access to Waze or Google Maps or any other apps, let alone a smart phone to help guide him in this journey.
How was Moses going to handle his new responsibilities?
In last week’s reading, we learned that Moses had help in fighting back against Amalek. Anew character who we hadn’t met before Joshua stepped forward to be his chief in battle
In this week’s parashah, we see that Moses is helped by anothercharacter, one who we did meet three weeks ago when we read Parashat Shemot, the first portion in Exodus.
This character has a number of nicknames such as Chovav, meaning beloved of God, and R’eu’el, meaning God’s friend. Here he is referred to as Yitro, who happens to be Moses’ father-in-law.
The parashah states that Yitro heard what happened to Israel. He likely has heard not just about the exodus with Egypt and the crossing of the sea of reeds but also about the attack by and the defeat of Amalek. Yitro therefore probably feels it is safe to reunite his daughter and his two grandsons with their husband and father, Moses. While the Torah is silent, implicit in the text is the return to Midyan at some point earlier in the story of Tzipporah and her children, possibly right after the incident of the circumcision of Moses’ son.
Yitro’s motivation for the trip was not just for family reunification and to praise God for the divine intervention on behalf of the Jewish people. He comes to offer advice to Moses on how to lead his community in the ordinary day to day issues of existence.
Yitro comes with some qualifications for this role as advisor. The parashah states that Yitro was Kohen Midyan, a priest or prince of Midyan. Certainly, he was a high-ranking experienced leader who is able to give Moses some clear and practical guidance on how the community of Israel can function effectively and on the role that Moses can play in supporting that objective.
Beth Tzedec isalso going through a change in leadership. The change in leadership for the Beth Tzedec community is somewhat different than that experienced by the children of Israel in this parashah. It is not simply a change in the responsibility of the leader and the situation of the community. It is a change in the personof the leader itself.
Rav Baruch, your senior rabbi for the past 26 years, ispreparing you for that transition and for his retirement. In his place, you will have a new senior rabbi.
The leadership transition you are undergoing is alsosomewhat different from the change experienced by the Jews at the end of Deuteronomy where Joshua was by then a known entity. Not only had he led the Jews to victory in their military encounters, he was also at Moses’ side throughout the 40-year journey in the wilderness. Your new senior rabbi Reb Steve will not be someone most of you will have had many dealings with. He is however a leader who joins the Beth Tzedec team with decades of experience. You may even have had the opportunity when he visited Beth Tzedec as the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
To assist in this transition, Reb Steve has the guidance of Rav Baruch and, upon his return from Israel, will have his presencehere as well for a number of months. Reb Steve will also have the support of your experienced clergy and senior administrative team.
Perhaps the greatestdifferences between the Biblical leadership changes and the one we are engaged in here at Beth Tzedec, is in how the leader was selected and the natureof the relationship between the leader and the community.
Moses selected Joshua based on the directive of God and though they were both benevolent, they were in essence dictators in the sense that there was no accountability mechanism as we are familiar with in western democratic societies.
In the current situation, your democratically elected board went through a transparent process of identifying an appropriate candidate who went through a broader based interview process in the Synagogue.
Perhaps even more important, the relationship between yourselves and Reb Steve and the nature of the community that you will have will be one that is mutuallydecided.
Recent events give some examples of leaders who have raised up the standing of their communities.
We just finished a film series at Beth Tzedec, one showing which was a documentary on the life of Sammy Davis Jr. This talented entertainer played a key role in opening up the industry itself as well as the broader community to greater diversity. The journey from racial segregation to integration was assisted by his personal struggle.
Earlier this week, there were observances for what would have been the 90th birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. MLK became the leading voice of African Americans in the USA and his commitment to non-violencehelped win support for civil rights legislation in the mid 1960s from the US Congress. His contribution to civil rights is celebrated not only south of the border. The City of Toronto officially recognizes Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the Royal Conservatory of Music earlier this month held a special concert in his honour.
Beth Tzedec, like other synagogues in western liberal societies, is facing the challenges of continuity and finding a way to become relevantagain to the younger generations. Given today’s simhah of a baby naming, I trust that we are on the right track. We have celebrated the welcoming in to the Beth Tzedec family a new member along with not only her parents along with three generations including an uncle who did hagba and an aunt who leyned, grandparents who led prayers and a great grandparent who did glila. What a wonderful example for this new arrival and for all other youngsters that they can play an active role in our community.
Beth Tzedec’s senior rabbis have played asignificant role in educating andinspiringcongregants and heightening our importance in the largercommunity. This willcertainly be one of the legacies of Rav Baruch. In selecting Reb Steve to succeed him, you are also expressing your desire for Reb Steve to continue these achievements.
There are tremendous insecurities in public life with varying approaches on how to address them, many of these views expressed quite strongly. Beth Tzedec, like other houses of worship and homes of communities of faith, will have to figure out its role in supporting congregants and in how to be a moral voice in the public policydiscussions. Like Moses in today’s parashah, Reb Steve will be leading you on a journey on roads not previously travelled.
Reb Steve will bring strong qualifications to assist the Beth Tzedec to rise to and successfully meet these challenges. He, however, is only one party to the partnership that is necessary to be effective and successful.
Yitro was not the only one who gave assistance to Moses. We read in Parashat Shemot that Moses had endangered his life and was saved by his wife Tzipporah who fulfilled the responsibility that he neglected of circumsizing his son.
In our situation, it is not a single person who needs to assist the leader, it is each of you. You need to welcome Reb Steve with openarms, assist him in getting settled in a new city, welcoming him back to be a resident of this country after a long absence and commit to working with him with open heartsand your creative minds to chart the route of your journey ahead to address and respond to issues you will be facing.
Next week, Reb Steve will be on the bimah for his firstofficial week at Beth Tzedec. You can transition into your new role as his partners in the journey you are takingtogether to evolve into the next iteration of the relationship between the senior rabbi and the congregants and what this Congregation will look like in the broader Toronto and Jewish communities.
I give you a brakhah that in the future when you look back on this journey, like the angels in this week’s Haftarah from Isaiah, you will be able to say “Kadosh Kadosh, Kadosh, M’lo chol ha’aretz k’vodo”—Holy, Righteous, Sanctified, has been our journey, as its entirely has been honourable.