Parshat Yitro, Exodus 18:1-20:23
The American psyche holds independence in great esteem. Our nation was conceived not by people who saw themselves united in culture or history or through shared ancient myths, but rather in defiance of distant, unfair rule. Our most familiar foundational stories — the Boston Tea Party, the American Revolution, Johnny Appleseed and Davy Crockett, Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea — speak of throwing off the yoke of British rule, of taxation without representation, of frontier expansion as fulfillment of manifest destiny. Americans needed elbow room, so they would not bump into their nearest neighbors.
I would argue that this latter sort of independence is not a Jewish value. Yes, we certainly extol freedom from oppression. Yes, we support personal responsibility for our actions. But ours is fundamentally a communal tradition. You cannot be Jewish alone — you need a community, a group of people to daven with, a group to celebrate and grieve and eat with, a partner to study Torah with, a hevra qaddisha (burial society), a biqqur holim society (for visiting the sick), charitable organizations to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and shelter the homeless and so forth. Our rituals often require a minyan, a quorum of 10. Our ceremonies require witnesses. Our lives require partners both human and heavenly.
And yet, as American Jews, we are also endowed with that sense of independence. America is different from the old country (wherever that was for you), where multigenerational families lived together and Jewish society was tightly integrated. In coming to these shores, we gained freedom and self-reliance, but we lost the sense of cooperation which infused our ancestors’ lives. To make it in America was, to our immigrant forebears, a study in imposed selfishness: We lifted ourselves out of the ghetto by striking out on our own as professionals and academics and entrepreneurs. With financial independence came social independence — we no longer need partners.
And yet, we miss this need. Independence leads to isolation. While we may feel more interconnected than ever, at least electronically, it often seems that we are also somehow less so.
Moshe Rabbeinu’s attempt to be the sole leader and magistrate among the newly freed Israelites is a striking reminder of the value of collaboration. His father-in-law, the Midianite priest Yitro, takes him to task for being too independent: “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.” (Exodus 18:17-18). He counsels Moshe to find trustworthy assistants, so that they can share the burden and be more effective.
The obvious read on this passage is about leadership; many of the commentators point out that Moshe is the only one with access to God. Another way to understand this is that none of us is an independent operator. We all need help and support, friends in whom to confide, partners with which to share responsibility, support networks on which to rely. Moshe is arguably the most human character in the Torah, and in this regard, he is like all the rest of us.
One of my favorite songs is Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” — a touching appeal to interconnectedness in the context of the Depression, drawing on Yiddish folk music motifs. The protagonist, a beggar, initially addresses his entreaty to a “brother,” but by the end of the song, the lyric grows darker; a less intimate “buddy” is the object of his plea. It speaks to growing alienation in our society, estrangement displacing familiarity, suspicion buying out trust.
That is the trend that we must fight against; it runs counter to the spirit of our tradition, all the way back to Moshe. We are all interconnected, and while there is no question that freedom is an essential Jewish value, isolation surely is not. We need each other. We need healthy communities. We need support. And we need to work to build that trust and connection.
Rabbi Seth Adelson is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.