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D’Var Torah: Yitro

By Kerry Chaplin

The first chapter of parshat Yitro is the Torah’s guidelines for the community organizer. Well before Alinsky, it outlines how to build a leadership to organize community for a specific goal. Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law, met Moses at Mount Sinai, and when he saw that Moses himself ruled for each and every dispute of the people, he was troubled: “The thing that you do is not good! Surely you will drop [from exhaustion], and so too will your people” (Exodus 18:17). He is concerned that Moses will not only wear himself to complete exhaustion, but that there will be no one left to guide the people. It’s a “heavy thing,” he says, and “you will not be able to do it alone” (Ex. 18:18).

Those of us who work for food justice see the heaviness of our burden, and we question whether we will achieve our vision of a fed, quenched, and healthy world. Just as Rashi says Moses’s heaviness was greater than his strength, so too the heaviness of our work is greater than a single organizer’s or director’s strength.

Yitro offers Moses a solution – an organizing plan applicable to our own vision: “Provide from all the people, those capable people who fear God – people of truth, who despise unjust gain – and appoint them as officers over thousands, officers over hundreds, officers of fifties, and officers over tens. . . . and it will be easier for you, and they will carry you” (Ex. 21-22). Yitro counsels Moses to build a movement by identifying talented, ethical people, and giving them responsibility for a portion of the heavy burden.

At the infancy of the Jewish people, Moses let go of his direct control to rule over them, and so he became an agent of God in creating the Jewish people. Leaders for justice, too, must make room for organic organizing, in order to strengthen our movement and to share the weight.

Though organizational leaders and staff understand the importance of developing talent to grow and strengthen our movement, we sometimes tend to assert control where our control is not necessary. This control not only restricts the creative possibilities of new ideas, but it makes heavier our already heavy vision. And alone, we’re just not strong enough.