Yitro – Who is your Jethro?

Who is your Jethro? I ask because we all need people like Jethro in our lives. Who is Jethro?  He is Moses’ father in law, […]

Who is your Jethro?

I ask because we all need people like Jethro in our lives. Who is Jethro?  He is Moses’ father in law, who comes out to greet Moses following our liberation from Egypt.  He sees something going on involving Moses that doesn’t seem right and he points it out.  And unlike most of us, Moses listens.  He doesn’t get defensive or angry.

We each need a Jethro or two, a mentor, a friend and a teacher.  Jethro’s impact not only allowed Moses to succeed, but it ripples to this day, resulting in a tiered legal system, empowering people to share leadership, raising awareness of burn-out, and institutionalizing conflict resolution. If not for Jethro’s advice, we may have ended up back in Egypt.  Few things in life shape us more than the people around us and few choices are more important than deciding the people with whom we choose to associate.

So I ask you, who is your Jethro? Are we seeking out friends, mentors and teachers who allow us to realize our deepest potential?  In the best-known book of the Talmud, the Ethics of the Fathers, (Pirkei Avot), there is an important saying by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya: “Aseh lecha rav – make for yourself a teacher; u’kaneh lech chaver and acquire for yourself a friend.”  The verbs make and acquire convey action.  We have to actively find people to teach us and friends to hold close.  Teachers and friends don’t passively appear.  We have to do our part to make them part of our lives.

This morning, I would like to explore finding teachers and friends.  I understand they are often different people, but today I will look at the overlap.  What attributes are most important in friendship and in a mentor?  How do you find these people in your lives?  I will build on Eric Greiten’s book, “Resilience”, which has beautiful chapters on friends and mentors, and weave in pieces of this morning’s portion in thinking about these decisions.

Look for a friend and a mentor who seeks to know you deeply and challenge you.  Too often, we look for people who agree with us and affirm whatever choices we make.  Greitens teaches that when friends and mentors challenge the flaws in our thinking and in our character, they make us better people.  When we look for friends and teachers, make sure they hold us to high standards and point out our blind spots.  And when they do those things, it should be done with love and honesty.  (Greitens, p. 212).  My daughter Emily has shared that, at times, she sought friends who were the most popular, the “in” crowd, but she came to understand that real friends are different than popular friends.  Real friends challenge you.  Real friends are grounded in kindness, respect and love.

A good mentor and friend pushes you and helps you see what you might overlook.  (Greitens, p. 226)  That’s what Jethro did for Moses.  He challenged him!  Look at Exodus 18: 14 (p. 434):  “But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, ‘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?’” Jethro uses questions to help Moses understand the problem in his behavior.  His questions drew Moses’ attention to the bigger picture and point to a possible solution.

Moses response shows how stuck he was (verse 16):  “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God.  When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teaching of God.”  Moses thinks he is the only person who can do that!  It is a common problem for many of us. But Jethro, his friend and teacher, points out his blind spot with honesty and love:  “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.”  He helps Moses see the flaw in his reasoning.  Greitens writes: “Good teachers are comfortable with their students being uncomfortable, yet they understand that a confrontation with weakness, with ignorance, with pain, is not an end but a beginning.  Awareness of our weakness opens a gateway to insight.” (p. 230).  Look for a teacher and a friend whose ability to challenge you leaves you a little uncomfortable, but it is done with love.

A good teacher and a friend does more than help you see what you overlook, they help you see things in a different way, opening doors about which you were not aware.  That is exactly what Jethro does.  Look at verse 19 –22.  Jethro tells Moses to teach others the laws of God, then they will be empowered to decided for themselves.  Then he tells him to set up lower and higher courts, made up of people with integrity.  These lower courts have their own authority to make decisions and the difficult decisions come to Moses.  In verse 22, Jethro gives a reason: “Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you.”

Jethro knows Moses and how to get through to him.  He references Moses faith.  In verse 23, Jethro says, “God commands you to do this!” The interesting aspect of that detail is that Jethro is a Midianite priest, yet he uses Moses’ religious language to give him insight.  A good teacher and friend know that what works for other students or friends maybe different from what works for you. They treat you as a unique person, different from everyone else. A great teacher knows this and has the gift of explaining things so they sink in to you.   After sharing that God commands this, Jethro says, “you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.”  It is about both surviving and about protecting the people’s well-being.   We each need a Jethro or two in our lives!  We each need someone who can push us, understand us, support us, love us, and stretch us.

Friends and teachers don’t magically happen.  We have to be active in seeking them out and knowing what to look for.  “Aseh lecha rav, u’kaneh lech chaver – make for yourself a teaching, acquire for yourself a friend.”  True friendships and extraordinary teachers are rare.  They require time and effort. We have to seek them out.

Do you have a Jethro in your life? Many don’t.  Today’s message is not an easy one to follow.  Cultivate true friends and extraordinary teachers. Be active and take risks.  If one teacher/friend is not working out, do not be afraid to look in other places.  Ethan found an amazing mentor and friend in his coach at the YMCA, but we had to go through other teachers and coaches to find the right one.  You might not be able to choose your teacher in school, but you can seek out all kinds of teachers, music teachers, coaches, youth group advisors, synagogue mentors, elders, and community activists.  The key is to look hard.

Have the humility to know that teachers and friends come in all shapes, sizes, colors, cultures, perspectives and worldviews. Jethro came from a different religion and culture than Moses did.  The Eighteenth Century Moroccan commentary, Or Hahayyim, teaches that the reason Jethro appears is to teach us that people of all faiths and backgrounds can be giants of understanding and insight.  Look in all kinds of places for friends and teachers.

In a beautiful sermon on this topic, Rabbi Patricia Karlin Newman brings up educator Parker J. Palmer, who wrote a groundbreaking book called “The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life”.  In it, he tells a story of his first mentor, a man he said, who broke every rule of good teaching.  He lectured without regard for his listeners. He listened poorly, if at all, to his students.  It was as if he thought, “Who needs twenty-year olds from the suburbs when you are hanging out with the likes of Marx, Hegel, Durkheim and Weber?”  But it was that very passion and engagement with ideas that captivated Parker Palmer, a first generation college student. So Palmer claimed this socially ill-adept man as his mentor.  Palmer wrote, “What mattered was that he generously opened the life of his mind to me, giving full voice to the gift of thought.  Something in me knew that this gift was mine.” (Palmer, p. 21-22 137)

As an educator, Parker Palmer often asks people to talk about a teacher who made a difference in their lives.  That question isn’t hard to answer.  Names and contexts easily come to mind.  But then he asks an important question, not “What made your mentor great?” but, “What was it about you that allowed great mentoring to happen?”  I would add, “What is it about you that allows for real friendship?  Aseh lecha rav u’kneh lecha chaver – we find teachers and friends when we seek out them out.  Teachers see in us an openness to learn, and help us to unlock the beauty, meaning, insight and wisdom that we possess.

Let’s ask ourselves: Who we might learn from? What friendships can we cultivate so that we can flourish, lighten our burdens, enlighten our thinking, enrich our lives and open our hearts?  My prayer today is that like Moses, we open our hearts to receive teaching and friendship.  We all need a Jethro or two. Who is your Jethro?