Monday, January 25, 2016

Facing the Difficult Questions – A Thought for Parshat Yitro

Over ten years ago, when I was a community rabbi in Metro Detroit, I invited a the Rosh Kollel for the Kollel Torah Mitzion, to a brief meeting.
“Rav Shlomo,” I said to him, “the programming at the kollel is incredible. You guys have so much energy, passion and excitement. The community members really love you. But I need to you to do something for me.”
“Sure,” he said. “What do you need?” He never saw the next sentence coming.
“I need you to stop talking about Aliyah.”
He seemed momentarily stunned.
“What do you mean ‘Stop talking about Aliyah’? That’s what we’re here for. We believe passionately in the value of Aliyah. Why would we stop talking about it?”
He was right, but so was I. Many community members, tired of hearing the same message over and over again, were simply tuning the members of the Kollel out. I wanted the Kollel to continue to have an influence over the members of the community, so I encouraged them to broaden their message.
I often feel that same estrangement from Diaspora Jewry today. If I write a piece about the importance of living in Israel, the response I get is tepid, indifferent, or hostile. “You made a choice for yourself” – they say – “but why do you insist on imposing your ideology on us?”

I preach Aliyah, of course, is because I believe that it’s the right thing to do.  If so, why do we tune out the messenger when we don’t like what he has to say? One answer lies in a quality of Moshe Rabbeinu that emerges from advice he receives from Yitro.

After settling in during his visit with Moshe in the desert, Yitro decides to join his son-in-law at the office. There he finds an intolerable situation, as the people stand from morning ‘till night, waiting to speak with Moshe. Yitro doesn’t mince words: לא טוב הדבר אשר אתה עושה – “the thing that you’re doing is not good.” (Shemot 18:17) Yitro gives Moshe what would seem to be obvious advice: You need to delegate. You can’t handle everything on your own. It’s not good for you, and it’s not good for the people either.

Moshe heeds Yitro’s advice and establishes a system to allow lower judges to handle the “easy” questions, while the more challenging queries made their way up the line to Moshe. If we think about it, Yitro’s advice isn’t all that unusual nor surprising. Wikipedia calls delegation “a core concept of management leadership.” If it’s so obvious, why didn’t Moshe think of it himself? And, if we assume that he did – which I believe is a fair assumption – why did he not delegate until Yitro came along and insisted that he do so?

According to the Harvard Business Review, “There are plenty of reasons why managers don’t delegate. Some are perfectionists who feel it’s easier to do everything themselves, or that their work is better than others’.”  It’s very easy to see Moshe Rabbeinu fall into that trap. After all, he really could do it better. The people really did want to speak specifically to him. Who wouldn’t want to talk to Moshe about their problems or questions? If the people want to wait, why should he stop them?
When Yitro insisted that he delegate, he also forced Moshe to ask himself some challenging questions: Why wasn’t he delegating? Why hadn’t he implemented the obvious system to deal with the impossible crush of people? It’s not easy to ask yourself questions like these, and many times we simply don’t want to hear the answers. They’re deeply personal, and oftentimes, the answers reveal aspects of our personalities that we’d rather leave unexplored.

The greatness of Moshe lay in the fact that rather than ignore Yitro’s advice and put the challenging questions aside, Moshe confronted them head-on. He was willing to honestly ask himself: Why don’t I ask other people for help? Why haven’t I changed? And, after asking the questions (and discovering the honest answers), he exhibits a willingness to make the appropriate and obvious course adjustment.

If you’re still with me, you probably can see where I’m going here. If you’ve read this far in this D’var Torah, you’ve either made aliyah, or appreciate the fact that aliyah must be a strong priority in the value system of every Torah Jew. Yet, too many people fear the difficult questions that they’d have to ask themselves if they actually confronted the issue head-on. (Why don’t we make aliyah? What am I really afraid of?) So they shun the messenger (or the message) and tell them to stop preaching Aliyah, and instead ask their scholars in residence from Israel to share fun stories about the IDF from the pulpit instead.

The story of Yitro’s advice teaches us that greatness stems not from knowing all the answers, but from the ability and willingness to confront the most difficult, challenging questions inside of us.