Parashat Yitro, Exodus 18:1-20:23
Being a workaholic is a no-no.
Among our most precious commodities is time. There never seems to be enough of it. Technological advances that promised to free us from the shackles of the analog clock have merely chained us to a digital timepiece. The pursuit of free time brings to mind a book I read in my youth called Cheaper by the Dozen. This was the biography of Frank Gilbreth Sr. and Lillian Gilbreth and their family of twelve children. The Gilbreths were efficiency experts and pioneers in what was called time and motion studies. Much of what they did would today be called ergonomics. They were looking for the most efficient ways to carry out tasks in order to increase productivity and save time. Frank had started life as a bricklayer. Through analyzing film of bricklayers at work, he and Lillian determined that the number of steps a person uses in laying bricks could be cut from 18 to about 4. In Cheaper by the Dozen, Frank explains why he wanted to save time. While I can't remember the quote exactly, it was something to the effect that people should have more time to do the things they wish to do, even should it be Mumblety-Peg. (This is a knife-throwing game that used to be played by boys. Recess ain't what it used to be.)
This week's parasha also contains an efficiency expert; in fact the portion bears his name: Yitro, or Jethro in English, is the father-in-law of Moses. He meets up with Moses after the latter has successfully led the Children of Israel out of Egypt and fought the Amalekites. Now they are settling into life in the wilderness. The purpose of Jethro’s journey is to reunite Moses with his family:
Jethro priest of Midian, Moses' father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the Lord had brought Israel out from Egypt. So Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses' wife, after she had been sent home, and her two sons — of whom one was named Gershom, that is to say, "I have been a stranger in a foreign land"; and the other was named Eliezer, meaning, "The God of my father was my help, and He delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh." Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, brought Moses' sons and wife to him in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the mountain of God. He sent word to Moses, "I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, with your wife and her two sons." Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed low and kissed him; each asked after the other's welfare, and they went into the tent.Exodus 18: 1-7
This is the only snippet of information we have concerning Moses' relationship with his family. Unfortunately, it is not very positive. He needs to be told that his father-in-law is approaching with his wife and kids. Commentators question where they have been. What does it mean that Zipporah had been sent home? Ibn Ezra notes that the same language is used elsewhere in reference to divorce. Bekhor Shor explains that Moses is only reunited with his family after the Exodus. According to Sforno, they now have a place to stay. Most interesting is Hizkuni's comment that this meeting actually occurred after the revelation at Sinai. This would mean that Moses' sons were not present at the giving of the Torah!
Okay, Moses has been awfully busy. First there were all those meetings with Pharaoh, many of them outside of business hours. Subsequently, there were some plagues. Then there was the dramatic crossing of the Sea of Reeds. Just when it looks like things are quieting down, the Israelites grumble and the Amalekites attack. But surely with all this behind him, Moses can take a short break. Not quite. Jethro notices that Moses is overwhelmed with work, settling disputes from sun-up to sundown. Jethro the efficiency expert has a solution: delegate:
But Moses' father-in-law said to him, "The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow. You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you. If you do this — and God so commands you — you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied."Exodus 18:17-23
It's not just that life will be easier for Moses, or that the people will be empowered. What Jethro proposes is the biblical equivalent of striking a balance in life. Being a workaholic is a no-no. And Moses is to set the example in the Torah. Later in the Talmud, even God sets an example of efficient time management:
Rav Judah said in the name of Rav: "The day consists of twelve hours; during the first three hours the Holy One, Who is blessed, studies Torah, during the second three God sits in judgment on the whole world, and when God sees that the world is so guilty as to deserve destruction, God moves from the seat of Justice to the seat of Mercy; during the third quarter, God feeds the whole world, from the horned buffalo to the brood of vermin; during the fourth quarter God plays with the leviathan, as it is said, There is leviathan, whom You have formed to sport therewith (Psalm 104:26)."Avodah Zarah 3b, Soncino translation
All of which brings us to the Ten Commandments and finding a balance in life. Did I forget to mention that the focal point of this parashah is the Revelation at Sinai? A parashah named after a Midianite priest, the father-in-law of Moses, a section that deals with the nitty-gritty of running the community concludes with God's Top Ten List. Our focus is number four:
Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.Exodus 20:8-11
In the Mekhilta, Rabbi Yitzhak observes that in other societies days have names, whereas the Hebrew days are numbered in relation to Shabbat; the Jewish world, indeed Jewish time revolves around Shabbat. Sforno picks up on this when he comments that we must remember Shabbat all week when we focus on our mundane work. If we "take care of business" at the proper time and place, we can put it out of mind on Shabbat. Sforno teaches that the world does not revolve around us or our work, it revolves around Shabbat
Efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth, Sr., had Mumblety-Peg; God frolics with leviathan. What joy and fulfillment do you have in life? How much time can you devote to it? Jethro's message to Moses was: Make time for your family. The commandment of Shabbat is to set aside time. Setting something apart is a holy act; the basic meaning of the Hebrew word for holy, kadosh, is "set apart." The Ten Commandments, and the entire parashah, teach us that not only must we act responsibly, we must also rest responsibly.
Rabbi Michal Shekel
Reminder: Unless otherwise noted all Bible translations quoted in the weekly studies are from the JPS Tanakh published by the Jewish Publication Society.