21 January 2011

Sharing the Burden

Strikes me as fairly obvious that Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, was a good guy.  Smart, organized, experienced in matters of religious leadership and decision-making, skills that Moses lacked.  Impetuous and strong-willed by nature, Moses begins to come into his own in this week's Torah portion but he can't really get past himself until his father-in-law Jethro the Midianite priest sets him straight when he sees Moses struggling mightily against the intensity of the demands made upon him as a leader of a recently freed people.  Moses is under enormous pressure to make all the decisions but his system is breaking down. 

"The thing that you are doing is not good.  You will surely wear away, both you and this people that is with you; for the thing is too heavy for you; you are not able to perform it for yourself alone," Jethro advises.  And in so doing, helps Moses set up a kind of judicial system to help Moses judge matters, share the responsibility of adjudicating for the people, and keeping the system of self-government in devotion to God running in such a way that what truly matters--the fulfillment of God's will--can be attained.

I joked earlier this week that Jethro was like Hamilton writing the Federalist Papers, theorizing about the necessity for a judiciary in order to move the decision-making along.  And it was going to be an advance from the Articles of Confederation--call those the Covenantal Ideas set forward between God and the Patriarchs, which were about to get an intense re-reading and re-orientation with the giving of Torah on Mount Sinai.

Jethro's contribution is so critical to Jewish development that the Sages named this week's Torah portion for him--as fine tribute as there could be, yes?--and he represents for us, the reader, that quintessential non-Jewish guiding voice we've all had in some form or another, living in a greater society composed of people from all walks of life, re-affirming that Divine Wisdom is not the exclusive national inheritance of one faith or ethnic or national entity over another.  We all have it and are generally better off when we share its wisdom with each other.

I had this partly in mind earlier in the week when I met the new Schools Chancellor Cathie Black.  She convened several faith-leaders from around the city for a breakfast meeting about how religious institutions can be better and more active partners with the City in ensuring a quality education for the more than 1 million New York City public school children.  I shared a table with one other rabbi, along with several priests, ministers and imams and we had a very productive conversation.  

We have our kids in public school, a choice we are very proud of; and I was greatly impressed by the work being done in greater communities out there to supplement learning -- especially for the poor  and disadvantaged areas -- with after school tutorial programs, early childhood learning and enrichment, and engaging mentorships that can really make a difference in people's lives.  The Chancellor listened intensely, took copious notes, repeated back the suggestions made to demonstrate a clear comprehension of what she was hearing, and then shared the floor with her Deputy Chancellor, Shael Polakow-Suransky, and Ojeda Hall, who is managing engagement with families, parents and faith-based organizations. 

The three leaders chairing the meeting have business, educational and community organizing acumen; and the leaders around the table, for this meeting, were representative of the many different faiths, nationalities and ethnicities of New York City.  Each were deeply and demonstratively dedicated to fighting for and ensuring the best education for this city's kids.

It's a rhetorical stretch to say so, perhaps, but I'll say that despite the controversy over the Chancellor's hiring, I walked away from the meeting with the distinct impression that the Department of Education could manage to continue to combine business and management skills with curricular and instructional expertise--that the "passing on of wisdom" to our children would be a shared effort, not the sole responsibility of one Educator-in-Chief.  But as Educator-in-Chiefs go, I was impressed.

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