Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6
If you’re the type who is often told you work too hard and will wear yourself out, then you’re in good company.
Apparently, Moses was a workaholic, too.
On bring-your-father-in-law-to-work day, Jethro watched as Moses put in long hours adjudicating the Israelites’ legal cases big and small. After Jethro saw how Moses was spending his time, he asked Moses point-blank, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” (Exodus 18:14) Some commentators even think he insinuated that Moses was neglecting his family by working so hard. Moses’ response to these charges was that the people came to him with myriad cases every day and it was up to him to rule according to God’s word.
Jethro offered two critiques. One was that Moses was going to wear himself out. Many of us easily relate to this one. We know we should create stronger boundaries between work and home. We fear burning out, getting tired and sick, or not spending enough time with loved ones.
The second piece of Jethro’s critique was that Moses was going to wear out the people. This one is a little harder to wrap our heads around. Wear out the people? Weren’t they content as long as their cases continued to be adjudicated? Jethro rightly pointed out that when we try to do all the work ourselves, we are actually hurting the people we work for and with.
When we say that only we can do a particular task, we may think it sounds like we care so deeply that we just can’t stop ourselves. But in fact, the message sent to the people who work with us sometimes is that we, alone, are capable. We say things like, “It will just take longer if I have to explain it to someone else,” or “If you want it done right the first time, do it yourself.” Not being able to delegate actually undermines others’ ability and shows a lack of trust. Jethro told Moses that the people would get worn out if Moses couldn’t “let them share the burden” (18:23); he needed to have faith that others could do just as good a job.
Moses’ father-in-law then gave some practical time-management advice. He suggested setting up a judicial system so the less complicated cases would go to a lower court, leaving the major cases for Moses. He not only lightened Moses’ load; he also taught Moses to empower the people.
Embedded in Jethro’s advice is a theological message, as well. Though the revelation at Mount Sinai reached everyone present, Moses assumed that only he was authorized to settle cases according to God’s will. Jethro’s challenge was quite radical. He insisted there were others who could be trained to mete out judgment. The really tough questions would be reserved for Moses, but he was not the only one who could rule according to the word of God. In fact, the Israelites would soon be called “a kingdom of priests” (19:6). Jethro’s critique and advice were daring. They challenged Moses’ role among the new Israelites.
Centuries later, kabbalist Isaac Luria would introduce the concept of tzimtzum into our Jewish vocabulary. He envisioned that in the beginning, God was everywhere and everything. For the world to come into being, God had to make space for that which was not God. By pulling back, by contracting, God allowed room for creation to take place. Some use this term today to speak of the need to practice tzimtzum when we are taking up too much room and want others’ voices to be heard. Perhaps Jethro felt that Moses had to exhibit tzimtzum by stepping back and empowering others in the emergent nation.
Many of us know we work too hard, and may even wear this as a badge of honor. But to take Jethro’s advice to heart, we must examine some deeper questions about the way we work. Are we as efficient as we can be? Do we use work as an excuse to avoid other responsibilities? Are we too enchanted with our own gifts or power? Do we need to practice tzimtzum?
Rabbi Mychal Copeland is the director of InterfaithFamily Bay Area. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.