Doing Jewish Differently

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The Rabbi’s Rave, Parsha Yitro, Shemot (Exodus) 18:1-20:23

Parsha Yitro Shemot (Exodus) 18:1-20:23

Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. 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 should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God; teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.”

Burnout. Is it comforting to know that leaders in every generation, from Moses to our era, have faced the same issue? I am not so sure.

I hear a common complaint from my rabbinic and cantorial colleagues all the time. “They act as if I am a candy machine. Pull a lever and something will come out.” “No matter how much I do, it never seems to be enough.” “I think they should change the name of my synagogue to Beth – What Have You Done for Me Lately?”

These are actual quotes from rabbis and cantors (not me). Once upon a time, clergy, to avoid this sort of dynamic, used to be granted sabbaticals to refresh and renew, to learn and grow. Sadly, in an era of downsized staff and fiscal constraints, more and more houses of worship do not offer this benefit. Once universal in academia and religious life, the sabbatical has become a rare perk.

Yet, Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses, saw the pressures unique to the role of his son-in-law and recommended this very antidote, delegate some of your authority and take a break.

Dealing day in and day out with the problems of others, counseling, advising, teaching, leading worship, doing ones best to keep peace between members is a VERY full time and exhausting job. That was the role of Moses and so too it is the role of the rabbis who, in some small way, carry on his legacy.

But Americans live in a culture where the concept of time off gets a bad rap. In the United States the standard program seems to be a two week vacation and back to the grindstone. It is quite different in Europe. In most EU nations 28 days’ paid vacation has become standard policy. In fact, the only countries in the world without mandatory paid vacation are the United States, Micronesian nations such as the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, and Tonga, and North Korea.

Americans have forgotten how to relax. Pursuit of profit, fear of being replaced, and an inability to delegate authority, all conspire to create a culture where taking time off is seen as a sign of weakness, and the workaholic is held up as the exemplar of good corporate behavior.

In our Biblical tradition the sabbatical is a central concept supporting all life. God and humans rest every seventh day. The land rests every seventh year. In the 50th year, the seventh cycle of seven years, even slaves go free. It is time for human beings to stop constantly performing as – humans doing. It is time to complete our exodus from servitude to freedom.

It is time for Americans to let go a little. We have too much stress and struggle in our lives. Mental and physical illness are often the root cause of disease and death. Imagine a world where everyone, not only academics and clergy, enjoyed the expectation and the reward of a long break. An opportunity to focus on self-improvement, family, and to reflect on our lives.

Yitro teaches us that no one, not even a Moses, is indispensable. We just have to set up the system that will allow us to flourish and be our best selves.

Bethesda Jewish Congregation

Bethesda Jewish Congregation