The excitement that we experienced last week in Parshat Beshallach continues this week. The Israelites are now out of Egypt and beginning the task of building a new post-slavery life. We witnessed the challenge this task brought last week when the people complained about the food, the water, and even the accommodations. While the ultimate reason for the exodus, the giving of the Israelites the Torah and thus a framework to live as a free nation dedicated to the Divine, takes place at the end of this week's parsha of Yitro, that challenge is ever present throughout the Biblical narrative.
Yitro, a Midianite minister, is Moshe's father-in-law. According to Rashi, Yitro heard about the spectacular events at the Red Sea and what took place with Amalek and decided to cast his lot with the Jewish people. As is well known, Yitro sees that Moshe spends his days judging the people, listening to their issues from morning until night. Yitro admonishes his son-in-law telling him that he cannot do this on his own, for he will become worn out. Rather he must delegate the responsibility of leadership to others. And so Moshe, heeding his father-in-law's advice, sets up a system of judges to handle the minor issues; the greater issues will remain with Moshe. Thus we see one aspect of the greatness of Moshe's leadership, the willingness to take suggestions and allow others to lead.
One of the qualifications that Yitro says is necessary for leadership is that of truth. According to Rabbi Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa, a Spanish Torah commentator who lived from 1255-1340 and who is also known as Rabbeinu Bachya, this qualification of truth is really one of character. Indeed, Rabbeinu Bachya writes that while knowledge and wisdom are of course necessary, even prized, attributes needed for leadership, it is ultimately character that sits at the top of the ladder. Using verses from the Torah about each as proof, he points out that Noah, Avraham, Yaakov, and Moshe were all praised for their character, rather than their wisdom.
Ultimately this is what we strive to be: people of sterling character, people of integrity and truth. The Talmud teaches that the "signature of the Divine" is truth. Jewish tradition places great significance in knowledge and wisdom to be sure, however character refinement remains the most essential quality not just for leadership but for life.
The parsha concludes with the incredible event at Mount Sinai: the Divine revelation of the Torah. With the giving of the 10 Commandments we see in this parsha the two pieces of Jewish tradition that must exist in tandem with each other, the ritual side (interestingly enough, the only "ritual" in the 10 Commandments is Shabbat) and the ethical side. It is said that Jewish tradition is about action. This is indeed true. Shabbat and holidays, kashrut, and prayer are fundamental elements of Jewish practice; there is no Judaism without them, but they are authenticated only by character.
May the Judaism that emerges from this school be one that teaches, encourages, and supports both sides of this precious coin. Shabbat Shalom.