When I was growing up in RSY-Netzer (the Reform Jewish youth movement) one of the values which we were always talking about was empowerment. Younger madrichim (youth leaders) were brought up through the movement by educating them, and empowering them in roles of leadership. At the age of 21 I led a four-week tour around Israel, at 22 I was the head of a summer camp for over 100 people, and at 23 I was working for RSY-Netzer and organising their entire summer provision. The youth movement empowered me in positions of responsibility that the wider society would never have presented me at those ages. And through the empowerment I grew into the positions which were entrusted to me.
At West London Synagogue it was the same thing. When I was about 17 the youth leader at the synagogue made aliyah (for those of you old enough to remember it was Gary Myers) and rather than replace him immediately, Richard Scott and I were given responsibility for youth provision while the synagogue decided how to proceed. At that age I was empowered by WLS to assume a leadership position, and I know that it is one of the factors which led me down this road to the Rabbinate, returning here to serve as one of the Rabbis.
Older, more senior people might have been able to do a better job in all of these roles, but RSY-Netzer and WLS empowered me to assume a position of leadership and responsibility.
As we read about Moses’ leadership of the Children of Israel it is clear that empowerment was not a word in his vocabulary. Together with Aaron and Miriam he led the Israelites from slavery to freedom, but he did rarely looked for others to help him in roles of responsibility.
When Yitro, his father-in-law, comes to visit in this week’s Torah portion, he watches in shock at the amount of work which has fallen on Moses’ shoulders. Yitro is aghast at the way that the people queue from morning until evening waiting for Moses to judge their legal disputes and cases (Exodus 18:13). After hearing Moses’ justification Yitro simply exclaims: “The thing you do is not good” (Exodus 18:17), he also observes “you will wear out yourself and the people.” (Exodus 18:18).
As Moses’ father-in-law Yitro obviously had a vested interest in seeing that Moses would have enough time for his wife and family, but his concern extends beyond the family. The people are also suffering. As the sole, supreme arbiter of all things Moses has robed the people of their independence, they may be free, but they are enslaved by the system which Moses has constructed.
It is bad for the people not just because they may spend hours waiting for a judgement, but because they are left infantilised, with no responsibilities or opportunities for leadership.
Yitro’s solution to set up chiefs and judges over groups of hundreds, fifties and tens (Exodus 18:21) not only provides an opportunity for Moses to spend more time with his family, but it also gives the Israelites an opportunity to assume positions of responsibility. This empowerment does not mean simply giving them responsibility and expecting the people to succeed; Yitro makes it clear that these people need to be trained and educated (Exodus 18:19-21) so that they can lead appropriately. They are given the tools, and then empowered to use them.
Yitro is honoured by having the Torah portion which includes the Ten Commandments named after him, not because he helped Moses, but because he helped the entire Israelite community, providing an opportunity for leadership and empowerment. After Yitro’s intervention the people are finally ready to receive the Ten Commandments and God’s Torah.