What is a rabbi? If readers of this column were asked such a question they would respond in this or a similar vein: “A rabbi is the spiritual leader or religious teacher, with particular regard to Jewish law”.
Is this true of the modern rabbinate where questions of safeguarding, the raising of funds and the managing of staff are often part of the rabbi’s contract of employment, notwithstanding the demands of congregants whose mental health and relations with each other often demand of the rabbi psychological insight, the tact of a United Nations diplomat and so much more?
Parashat Yitro, named after the Midianite priest and father-in-law of Moses, is an important one, not least because it contains one of two versions of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:1-14 (the other being found in Deuteronomy 5: 6-18).
Moses was, of course, not a rabbi since the title and function did not exist until the late Second Temple period, and the possibility of a paid rabbinate was unknown until the medieval period.
Yet Moses is portrayed in Parashat Yitro carrying out one of the rabbinate’s current functions — the resolution of disputes between members of a Jewish community.
Parashat Yitro records that Moses sat as a judge among his people from morning until night and it took Jethro to rebuke Moses and suggest the organisation of a judiciary by the selection of persons “who feared God, were trustworthy, and spurned ill-gotten gain” to adjudicate in the majority of matters, leaving Moses to arbitrate only in the most complex of cases.
In a time when a few months ago Rabbi David Mason, who had served at Muswell Hill United Synagogue for 15 years, warned of rabbinic burnout - and with vacant pulpits across all streams of British Jewry - Parashat Yitro may have a lesson or two for today’s and tomorrow’s rabbinate.
Although the modern rabbi is trained and skilled in a range of topics unknown to their recent predecessors, it may still be important to clarify what are the rabbi’s responsibilities and what can safely and appropriately be passed to others, whether professional or lay.
More important than the benefit of shared leadership, is the care of the rabbi. Jethro reminds Moses that his current level of work jeopardises not only his own well-being but the capacity to do a good job, to serve the people well.
There is a Jewish principle of shmirat hanefesh which arises from Deuteronomy 4:15: “Be careful for your own sake” or “take good care of yourself”.
The modern rabbinate will be successful if it understands that this principle applies as much to itself as it did to Moses and does to today’s congregants.