No Man Is An Island: Yitro’s Model of Activist Leadership
By Emily Winograd
In one of his most famous poems, John Donne writes, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man/is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” The expression “no man is an island” has long since passed into colloquial usage as a reminder of the need to rely on others for support and guidance. In Parshat Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law defends this philosophy as an approach to governance, and by a number of means, he strives to relieve his son-in-law of the burden of sole leadership, for his own well-being as well as for the good of bnei Yisrael.
Yitro argues for the division of Moshe’s responsibilities from three different perspectives. First, he says ’ מָה-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה לָעָם–“what is this thing that are you doing to the people?” (Shemot 18:14)-indicating that the high demand for Moshe’s judgment is taking its toll on the entire community. Second, he points out that Moshe will ultimately exhaust and neglect himself in the effort to address the needs of everyone. Additionally, by bringing Tzipporah and her sons with him to Moshe, Yitro tacitly suggests that Moshe’s role as judge has forced him to neglect his obligations to his family. Finally, after presenting a model in which representatives adjudicate in Moshe’s place, Yitro offers his most convincing argument: ’ וְצִוְּךָ אֱלֹהִים,’ the assertion that his model is mandated by G-d (18:23).
Sefer Shemot opens with the transformation of the Israelites from “bnei Yisrael,” their original name in Breishit, to “am bnei Yisrael,” the term applied to them by Pharaoh (1:9). This new moniker signifies a shift from a large family comprised of individuals to a unified people. In Parshat Yitro, too, an outsider heralds a change in the character of bnei Yisrael. Yitro’s advice to Moshe assists the Israelites in their transition from a group of people with a shared heritage to a unified nation governed by an efficient judicial system. Significantly, this episode immediately precedes the transformational moment of matan Torah, in which bnei Yisrael receive the principles that will cement their national unity. Yitro’s lesson lays the foundation for the enforcement of these principles, and thus, for the cohesive national identity of the Jewish people.
Yitro’s message is particularly relevant to social justice activists and leaders who hope to expand or enrich the activities of their grassroots movements. This parsha makes a convincing argument for a kind of inclusive and transparent leadership model that improves the efficacy of any organization, while fostering an environment of teamwork and cooperation. If one is to be “involved in mankind,” in the words of Donne, it is crucial not only to alleviate human suffering through activism, but also to ensure that one’s activism is founded on a model that bespeaks respect for one’s fellow activists. Only such a truly collaborative model can empower individuals to use the full range of their skills to contribute to collective social justice efforts.