Don't be so humble, you're not that great. - Hevreh
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Don’t be so humble, you’re not that great.

Rabbi Jodie Gordon

Yitro || January 25, 2019

In a few weeks, I’ll be traveling to Israel with our pre-confirmation students, and have been doing some preparation, thinking, and reading of my own to get ready. 

I was reminded this week of one of my favorite quotes, attributed to Golda Meir, the first (and hopefully not last) female to serve as Prime Minister of the State of Israel. 

“Don’t be so humble, you’re not that great.” 

The apocryphal tale goes like this: Golda Meir’s quotation “Don’t be so humble. You’re not that great.”  First appeared in the New York Times of March 18, 1969[1]

There is some dispute, however, as to whether Meir was speaking to “an acquaintance” or to “one of her ministers” or to “a visiting diplomat” or to “General Moshe Dayan”. Of the four suspects, Dayan seems to be the one cited most frequently.

Which brings me to this week’s Torah portion, to a scene so familiar, that with a few changes of character, you can imagine taking place today.

Meet Moses. 

Chief negotiator between Pharaoh and God. 

Right hand human to The Eternal

Leader of the Israelites out of Egypt

Bearer of the Staff which can Split Seas

And now— in this weeks’ Torah portion, Yitro, we encounter Moses the Magistrate. 

וַיֵּ֥שֶׁבמֹשֶׁ֖הלִשְׁפֹּ֣טאֶת־הָעָ֑םוַיַּעֲמֹ֤דהָעָם֙עַל־מֹשֶׁ֔המִן־הַבֹּ֖קֶרעַד־הָעָֽרֶב׃

And Moses sat as judge over the people. 

And the people stood around Moses from the morning until the evening. [2]

All day long- the people would bring their gripes and concerns to Moses. 

“Moses, can you just take a look at this…”
“Moses, do you have a minute? I just….”
“Can you believe this Moses? I need you to….”

It’s not hard to imagine just how exhausting it was for him to sit there day and night, hearing the complaints of the Israelites. Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law sees this going on— and says:

מָֽה־הַדָּבָ֤רהַזֶּה

If Golda Meir did address the comment to Moshe Dayan, it is worth noting that he had played a central role in Israel’s victory over Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the Six-Day War of 1967.  Presumably, it wouldn’t have been unrealistic to have called him great. And yet, in just eight words, Meir landed on something timeless in the human story.  It doesn’t matter if we lead armies to victory, rule over people and land: greatness is subjective.  We don’t know the rest of the context: perhaps Dayan was brushing away well-deserved praise, or perhaps trying to take on new responsibilities.  

“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?”[3]

Moses, here is the original Atlas— condemning himself, it seems, to a lifetime of holding up the heavens for the people: providing for their every need, at every hour. 

Moses responds:

“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 teachings of God.”[4]

To be sure, Moses, new in this role as leader and prophet, seems simply to be taking his responsibilities seriously. His humility is palpable; a trait for which he will be known later in Torah. 

Yet it is with great wisdom, and compassion that his father-in-law looks at him, and offers some unsolicited advice: 

“It’s not good, this thing you are doing. You’ll wear yourself out.  Find people you trust—capable men who fear God, and set them as chieftains over the people. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you. If you do this—and God so commands you—you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.”[5]

In other words: don’t be so humble, you’re not that great. 

When it comes to the places in our lives where we feel a sense of responsibility, how do we draw the line between feeling responsible, and feeling irreplaceable? 

Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus remarkson this very question: 

The Rabbis of antiquity called Moses rabbeinu, “our rabbi, our teacher,” as a term of love and respect. He is the quintessential giver of law and leader of the people. Perhaps they called him that because they also wanted to be legal authorities and popular leaders. But leadership is a tricky thing. 

It is easy to get too caught up in all the details, easy to take oneself too seriously, easy to get burned out. No one person is capable of doing everything. One of my colleagues likes to say that when he visits the cemetery, he regularly sees the graves of those who thought they were indispensable.[6]

From the pages of Torah, to the pages of our own calendars, this question, I suspect, is real and alive for many of us. 

How much do we have to do?
How well do we have to do it? 

Do we have to be able to do it all the time, perfectly, and with a smile on our faces?

 These questions are as modern as they are ancient; and the anxieties they provoke know no age limit.  An article appeared in Buzzfeed a few weeks ago, that stirred up a fair amount of controversy. The title? 

“How Millenials Became the Burnout Generation”

In this article, author Anne Petersen suggests that we’ve got it all wrong. Millennials aren’t lazy or incapable. The problem with millennials, she says, is that they are burned out. Millennials, also defined as people born between 1982-1996, are a generation that has been lauded and reviled, often at the same time, by previous generations who applaud their innovation and ingenuity, while they criticizing their laziness, and dependence on others.

Petersen writes: 

Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly — since I was young. 

What’s hard for many who critique the idea of millennial burnout to understand, is how a generation that has created so much assistive technology, can feel so stymied by the tasks of every day life. After all, as Rabbi Evan Krame comments

Even as burnout is applied to describe the millennial generation, those born after 1982 lead the way in the delegation of tasks. Using the internet millennials are likely to outsource a project or burden. Uber drives, Amazon delivers, Venmo pays, TaskRabbit employs, and the list goes on. [7]

So if delegation isn’t really the issue, what is it? 

Imagine with me, the story of our years in the desert, under Moses’ leadership— except this time, without Yitro stepping in to offer advice. 

From sun up, to sun down, Moses would have remained there- hearing the complaints, solving the problems, and tackling the complexities of a people who still wear the scars of slavery. 

“Moses, can you just take a look at this…”
“Moses, do you have a minute? I just….”
“Can you believe this Moses? I need you to….”

Those voices, those needs— all day, every day. What Yitro offers Moses is both a charge, and a loving chastisement. 

Don’t be so humble. You’re not so great. You can hear the major concerns, and bring them to God. But share the burden. Find people you trust. Don’t do it all alone— you’ll burn yourself out. 

Don’t do it all alone. 

When Yitro advises Moses to delegate some of his responsibilities, he says: V’atah techezeh mikol ha-am, “You shall also seek out, from among all the people . . .” (Exodus 18:21). But the word “techezeh” usually refers to a vision or prophecy, indicating that the selection process requires more than mere administrative expertise. Rashi clarifies this with his addition: b’ruach hakodesh she-alecha, “with the holy spirit that is upon you” (Rashi on Exodus 18:21)[8]

It’s as though Yitro is saying: you know what, Moses: you’re right. You do have a different kind of responsibility: you have been chosen by God to do holy work. And sometimes, holy work requires discernment. It demands that we know that not a single one of us is indispensable. Each and every person has a role to play, and even in the most serious and significant matters, even Moses learns that there are others who are capable, trustworthy, and who share his vision, upon whom he can lean. 

Ultimately, the spiritual gift of this week’s Torah portion comes not only in the grand display of smoke and fire as God gives the 10 commandments to the people, but rather— in the offering of a father-in-law to his daughters’ husband: 

Don’t be so humble. You’re not that great. 

But beyond the simple act of delegation, Yitro gives Moses a gift: the gift of time, of spaciousness: the reminder to cling to his wife Tziporrah, to lean on his siblings, Aaron and Miriam.  Yitro also helps Moses to make space to remember that all of this work is in service to God. For Moses’ this seems to be the most powerful reminder of all: Believing that there is a God in whose presence we stand means that we are not the centre of our world. God is.


[1]According to Stephen Spector, author of  May I Quote You on That?: A Guide to Grammar and Usage (2015),

[2]Exodus 18:13

[3]Exodus 18:14

[4]Exodus 18:15

[5]Exodus 18:17-23

[6]https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/yitro/advice-father-law

[7]https://www.thejewishstudio.org/blog/2019/1/18/beating-the-burnout

[8]https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/yitro/advice-father-law[

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