Even Stars Need a System

From 1/25/19

Fans of Boston’s most successful sports franchise, the Boston Celtics, have been very frustrated this year. 

The team came in to the year with great expectations, but has struggled to meet them. As the losses have mounted, players have complained, fought with each other, and been unable to find answers.

The Celtics best player, their All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, has tried to lead them, but has struggled to find his voice in that role. First, he preached patience, then repeatedly called out his younger teammates, questioning their motives. His attempt to lead by telling others what to do was only leading to more stress and exhaustion for him and his teammates.

More recently, Kyrie Irving has seemed to find his footing as the leader of the team, but what he could really use is a visit from the headliner of this week’s Torah portion, Yitro. After the Israelites escaped Pharoah and his army, and crossed the Reed Sea to safety, Moses’s father-in-law Jethro “heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt” (Ex 18:1) and he brought Moses’s wife Tzipporah and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, to the wilderness near Mt. Sinai where the Israelites were camped. There, Jethro, a priest of Midian, reunites with Moses, hears all that has happened, and offers a sacrifice to God.

The next day, Moses sits as a judge before the people and Jethro observes Moses struggling in his role as a leader. There’s a line out the door of Israelites, who want to ask Moses what they should do with this or that issue, and Moses is sitting there trying to see every person and answer every question. 

Yitro gives Moses some advice: You’re gonna wear yourself out. You can’t deal with all these problems. 90% are below your pay grade.

You need to find good people and delegate. “Set up chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you.” (Ex 18:21-22) If you do all of this, peace will be with you. 

Essentially, Jethro is telling Moses: Establish a system. Do what you are best at and what only you can do – communicating with God and teaching God’s Torah. Give people roles. Empower them in their roles. And let them do their job.

That was good advice for Moses and it’s good advice for Kyrie Irving and the Celtics. 

But my question is, why did Moses need Yitro’s advice in the first place? He was God’s hand-picked leader for a reason. He was clearly capable, so why was he struggling. In a Midrash on the moment before Moses encounters the Burning Bush, the rabbis explain why Moses was chosen to lead the people of Israel.

Our teachers have said: Once, while Moses was tending to the sheep of his father-in-law, Yitro, one of the sheep ran away. Moses ran after it until it reached a small, shaded place. There, the lamb came across a pool and began to drink. As Moses approached the lamb, he said, “I did not know you ran away because you were thirsty. You are so exhausted!” He then put the lamb on his shoulders and carried him back. The Holy One said, “Since you tend the sheep of human beings with such overwhelming love – by your life, I swear you shall be the shepherd of My sheep, Israel.” (Shemot Rabbah 2:2)

Moses was chosen by God for his love and compassion for each of God’s creatures. But that same sense of duty and responsibility that led him to follow the sheep and gently return it home, was now causing him to sit from morning until night, each day, listening to the problems of his people. As a shepherd, he led from the back, paying attention, listening, and following his flock. But now he has to lead from the front, and he doesn’t really know how to do that.

I’ll spare you the sports radio analysis of how this applies to Kyrie Irving and the Celtics, because I think what’s most important is how this applies in our own lives.

What makes us great in one area, might cause us problems in others. What made us successful at one place, might now be our greatest obstacle. There are many different forms of leadership and we are all capable of being leaders. But we must continue to listen, take feedback, and grow, if we want to continue to succeed. May we all be blessed with wise mentors like Yitro and the ability to hear the advice of those who love us.

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