Good Advice?

I grew up listening to Allen Sherman’s records, and they’re as funny to me today as they were back in the 60s. One song, that I discovered as an adult, is called “Good Advice.” In it, he cites a man named Otis who had invented a room that “goes side to side.” Sherman said, “So I said, “Mr Otis, if you take my advice, you’ll be the richest man in town. You gotta take that room that goes from side to side, and make it go up and down. And that was good advice, good advice, good advice costs nothing and it’s worth the price.”

This week’s Torah reading, named for Moses’ father-in-law Yitro, includes the revelation at Mt. Sinai–the pivotal moment when the Israelites vowed, na-asseh v’nishma, “we will do and we will hear.” The Torah is given and the Aseret haDibrot, commonly translated as The Ten Commandments, are given.

But before we get to that part, we have an interesting encounter between Moses and Yitro. Moses has apparently been spending his days dealing with people, settling disputes, service justice, inquiring of God. Yitro, older and wiser, and perhaps keeping his daughter and grandsons in mind, tells Moses, lo tov hadavar hazeh asher atah oseh, “It’s not good, this thing you’re doing,” and points out that what he’s doing will wear both him and the people out.

Yitro gives Moses advice, to appoint men of good repute to serve as chiefs over smaller groups, and only the most difficult cases would come to Moses, who would then take them to God. This always reminds me of how our US Court systems work.

Moses takes this advice, and then (presumably) Yitro leaves to go back to his homeland. We don’t know from the text how the system worked out, but what’s important is the relationship between the two men that allowed this exchange to even happen. According to our great commentator Rashi, Moses’s greatness hinged on his relationship with his father-in-law, a respected priest, and Yitro prided himself on his relationship to Moses was further elevated in status as being connected to a leader appointed by God.

When Moses recounted all that had happened–the splitting of the sea and the victory over Amalek–Yitro rejoiced, blessed God and offered a sacrifice. Interestingly, the Torah tells us nothing of Moses’ relationship to his own father, Amram. In fact, we don’t even know if Moses’ parents were even alive at the time of the Exodus. Yitro fills in beautifully, offering solid, respectful advice, along with a solution to the situation, and then backs off, respecting Moses and giving him space.

As we move forward in our lives, may we have the ability to know when advice should or shouldn’t be offered, the courage to offer it, and the humility to accept it.

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