Yom Shishi, 19 Iyyar 5779
Friday, 24 May 2019
Parashat Yitro 2012

Parashat Yitro by Rabbi Richard Jacobi
6th February 2012

Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, has sometimes been called the first management consultant in history, for his advice to Moses about dividing up the responsibilities of dealing with the conflicts and disagreements between the people of Israel. Instead of doing all the judging of disputes himself, Moses took Jethro’s advice and appointed men (in those times, it was only men) to deal with matters arising from groups of ten, hundreds, or thousands. Moses conserved his energies for the really important decisions. In my management consultancy work before coming to the rabbinate, I came to appreciate that people need a framework with which they can operate with discretion. If we have no rules, we have no framework. While Moses was making all the decisions himself, he knew all the rules and made decisions according to what was in his head. As soon as others were making the decisions, the framework needed to be set out.

So it is that, shortly after these powers are delegated, the major rules of the framework are set out. We know them better as the ‘Ten Commandments’, and they will be followed in next week’s portion by many more detailed rules – the Mishpatim.

Within the framework set out by the Ten Commandments, we can note that only three are positive. Indeed, the first is better understood as a statement “I am the Eternal One your God…” This is a reminder that if God is God, then we cannot be, something we need to remember constantly, and which underpins everything else (even an atheist shares the understanding that they are not God!). Seven commandments are negative. Should this mean that Judaism is a religion concerned only with what we cannot do?

Both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ have their place. As William Ury puts it: “‘Yes without No is appeasement, whereas No without Yes is war.’ Yes without No destroys one’s own satisfaction, whereas No without Yes destroys one’s relationship with others. We need both No and Yes together. Yes is the key word of community, No is the key word of individuality. Yes is the key word of connection, No is the key word of protection. Yes is the word of peace, No is the key word of justice.” (‘The Power of a Positive No’, page 236)

In Jewish tradition, God’s name of Adonai is associated with mercy (Ury’s ‘peace’), while Elohim is associated with justice. We know that society needs both of these aspects of the Divine if it is to survive and thrive.· In the same way, we all need No alongside Yes. Parents need to clarify boundaries and the rules, so that children can safely grow up and eventually challenge those boundaries, often as a pelude to learning that the boundaries are, in fact, wise and necessary. Employers set rules with and for employees, governments propose rules within which society can flourish. A poor No is destructive yet, as William Ury reminds us, so is an inappropriate Yes. A good No serves to support and underpin relationships as much as a good Yes. The seven Nos help us construct a healthy society – let us use our No and our Yes with this goal in mind.