A Nation of Doers: Shabbat Yitro 2/6/2015 – 18 Shevat 5775


A young(ish) rabbinic colleague of mine recently left congregational life. When asked why, she told a story about a congregant who asked her last minute to come to a committee meeting that wasn’t already on her calendar.   “I really can’t,” she said, “I can’t go to a meeting every night this week.”

“Who asked you to?” replied the congregant. “I’m only asking you to come to this meeting.”

Perhaps you know the feeling — you don’t have to be a rabbi to feel it! — whether at work, in our families, in our volunteer life — a lot of us know what it feels like to be asked by oh so many people to do this or that – “do you have a minute?” — until you realize lots of different people are expecting you to be everywhere, take part in everything, be all things to all people.

Or perhaps you’re one of the ones who doesn’t even need to be asked — you just volunteer for everything. What’s that about?

Maybe you feel bad saying no. Guilty maybe: If I don’t do it, I’ll make more work for someone else.

Or arrogant: if I don’t do it, it won’t be done right!

Maybe somewhere along the way you had a people pleaser gene implanted — a lot of us like the feeling of being wanted; or the feeling of being, if not indispensable, at least useful:

“If I can, I should,” we think.

Well, if that’s you, I want to invite you to think again. That old maxim — if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it — might need some re-thinking.

Yesterday about 12 people joined a telephone study session that Davi’s wife, Bracha, organized. Bracha and I led the first of a two part discussion about “making a difference in 2015.” One of the things we talked about was how Judaism is considered a religion of “doers” — that many of the commandments of our religion direct us to do things — whether ritual actions (like lighting shabbat candles) or working in all kinds of ways to make the world a better place.

In fact, some say the origin of this idea of Jews being “action oriented” comes from this week’s Torah portion when we hear for the first time (we’ll hear it again next week), the Jewish people as a group making a commitment to God. Perhaps you know the scene — it happens, ironically, right before God delivers the 10 commandments (also in this week’s Torah portion) to all the Israelites who have just recently gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the first place they’ve really had a chance to rest since escaping from Egypt and making their way through the miraculously parted waters of the Red Sea in order to escape the Egyptians who have come in full pursuit to bring them back to Egypt.

There at Mt. Sinai, the Egyptians no longer a threat, God tells Moses to deliver the following message to all the Israelites, and Moses apparently does so. Tell them for Me, says God, that:

“If you will listen and hear My voice and guard my Covenant, you will be My treasure among all peoples. For all the earth is Mine, but you will be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” [ 19:5-6]

Hear that “if/then” clause in what God asks of them? — If you will do this, THEN you will be MY treasure.

The peoples’ response? According to Torah, “all the people answer as one, saying, ‘All that God has spoken, we will do! kol asher diber Adonai — na’aseh” [19:8]

Jews like to joke that this comment, and a similar one in next week’s portion, are the only time all Jews spoke with one voice. (And that’s a joke based on the truth). But did you hear the other message of that answer, “Everything that God has spoken, we will do!” [19:8] Don’t worry, God — we will do everything!

You might have noticed Davi and I both got the “color memo,” and are wearing red tonight. Anyone know who sent the color memo? Today — February 6 — is the annual Go Red for Women Day — created and sponsored by the American Heart Association (where our friend Larry Bloustein works) — it’s a day to raise awareness about heart disease and stroke.

Their website tells the story :

“Women are strong. Women are smart. Women solve problems. Women can do anything men can do. And, there are some things we’re even better at – dying of heart disease and stroke.

[It goes on to say:]

“It’s not just a man’s disease. Each year, 1 in 3 women dies of heart disease and stroke. But we can change that because 80 percent of cardiac events can be prevented with education and lifestyle changes.”

In fact, according to their website,

“Since Go Red For Women was launched a decade ago, women’s heart disease death rates have declined by 34 percent. This is encouraging progress, but our work is far from done. An estimated 43 million women are affected by cardiovascular diseases, and 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors for heart disease or stroke.”

It is useful and important to point out differences in people when it comes to lots of things, and heart disease and stroke is one of them. Knowing that symptoms of a heart attack in a woman can be different from those for a man can save lives. But no one is off the hook in this discussion — all of us have some control over our risk factors. I made some copies of a fact sheet that list some symptoms of heart attack, but also that give some risk factors that each of us can help to control in our own lives. And all of these apply to everyone, not only women.

And there are other risk factors that oddly don’t show up in this particular fact sheet, except by implication.

Across all gender boundaries, stress and doing too much, can be as dangerous as doing too little. If you neglect your own health because you are too busy “fulfilling your responsibilities,” taking care of everybody else, meeting deadlines, trying to do it all even though there are others around who could share the burdens, you are putting yourself at risk.

I know I’m not the best role model in all this, and I’m certainly not standing here as the rabbi of a congregation that depends upon devoted volunteers to advocate that you stop volunteering. Far from it. I’m just here to remind us all that there are many ways TO DO, to be a doer, and not every way is a healthy way.

And in case you think Judaism doesn’t back me up in that statement, another scene in this week’s Torah portion actually teaches the point that trying to do it all is not the best way to operate in the world.

This is a passage the Torah studiers on Tuesday night and on Thursday noon looked at — no surprise, since it’s a favorite of mine. Out in the wilderness, just before all the people promised God they would DO EVERYTHING, Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses, comes from his home in Midian to visit Moses, (and to bring Moses his wife and his two sons, who have apparently been kept out of harm’s way back in Midian). You might remember that Yitro is a Midianite priest — though not an Israelite, he is a religious leader of people, and therefore a good one to give advice to Moses. And on the second day of his visit, Yitro decides to go to work with Moses (think of it as a “Take Your Father-in-law to Work Day”), and here’s what happens [Exodus 18:13-27]:

And it came to pass the next day, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood about Moses from the morning until the evening.

And when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he did for the people, he said: ‘What is this thing that you do for the people? why do you sit alone, and all the people stand about you from morning until evening?’

And Moses said to his father-in-law: ‘Because the people come to me to inquire of God;ּ when they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I judge between a person and their neighbor, and I make known the statutes of God, and God’s laws.’

And Moses’ father-in-law said to him: ‘The thing that you do is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, you and this people that is with you; for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it all alone.

Listen now to my voice, I will give you counsel, and God be with you: you be for the people before God, and bring the causes to God. And you teach them the statutes and the laws, and show them the way they must walk, and the work that they must do. And also you shall provide out of all the people able ones, people who fear God, people of truth, hating unjust gain; and place these people over the others, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And let them judge the people at all seasons. And it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they shall judge themselves; so shall they make it easier for you and share the burden with you. If you do this thing, and God commands it, then you will be able to endure, and all this people also shall go to their place in peace.’

And it came to pass the next day, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood about Moses from the morning until the evening.

You will surely wear away, both you, and this people that is with you; for the thing is too heavy for you; you aren’t able to perform it all by yourself.



כד  וַיִּשְׁמַע מֹשֶׁה, לְקוֹל חֹתְנוֹ; וַיַּעַשׂ, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר אָמָר.

24 So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law, and did all that he had said.




That is to say, by not doing everything himself, everything got done — better. No burn out, no heart attacks, no setbacks (well, okay a few set backs). BUT way more Israelites had a say, and even more got to take part in their own lives and their own future.

And maybe after all that is the secret — not so secret really — to what God wanted from us all along, in giving us the commandments, in asking us to be not only a people, but God’s people. And maybe it’s what the Israelites meant all along too when they said in one voice “ALL that You have spoken, we will do.” Maybe we have been (or is it just me?) hearing the emphasis on the wrong word. We shouldn’t be emphasizing the “DO” part, but rather the “WE” part. Not asiti — “I did” it! but NA’aseh: WE will do…TOGETHER.

For whether it’s coming together to learn or to pray or to have fun or to change the world for the better, it’s the coming together, it’s the WE, that can keep all of our hearts beating strong — ready, wanting, and able to DO what needs to be done.

Shabbat shalom

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