Weekly D’var: Yitro – Rabbi Seth Goren, Hillel Ontario

“I’m swamped,” they said. “There’s so much going on. Between COVID and supporting students and other things going on, it feels overwhelming.” Thus began a conversation with a colleague, as they gave an initial and honest response to the basic and human question, “How are you doing?” After taking stock of where they were on a variety of fronts, we strategized about how to respond to the slew of challenges arrayed before them – what could be delegated, what should be set aside for the moment, what would be energizing and nourishing, and what just needed to be axed entirely.

LIke so many of us, my colleague was grappling with the strain of, well, everything. We’re almost two years into a pandemic, and beyond the ordinary turbulence of life, the ongoing rollercoaster of closing/reopening/closing/anticipation/relief/disappointment/fear feels never-ending. For those of us in caregiving roles – whether formally or informally – weariness and exhaustion can be especially acute.

Even under the best of circumstances, some of us are prone to take on more work than is realistically or reasonably accomplishable. We can easily get to a point where fatigue sets in, often without being conscious of what we’re doing to ourselves and what our workload is doing to us.

And these times, my friends, are most certainly NOT the best of circumstances. The burden of professional, academic, or personal responsibilities – whether voluntarily assumed or imposed against our wishes – can be crushing. It’s helpful and important to acknowledge where we are emotionally, somatically, psychologically, and physically – and to realize that that acknowledgement alone is probably insufficient to hold us up in the face of our struggles.

Which is why I’m so appreciative of Jethro as a biblical role model and his guidance for Moses. While Moses seems oblivious to the destructive impact of his own poor work/life balance, Jethro notices immediately and is concerned. “The thing you are doing is not right,” he says, “You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.”

And he doesn’t stop there. Jethro goes on to provide a detailed plan to suggest how Moses can make this situation manageable. His approach shifts some of the more basic tasks to others and reserves Moses’ time for the complicated decisions that only he is in a position to address. This intervention enables Moses to reduce his working hours and provides a practical answer to the question Moses seems unable to even articulate: how can I care for myself as well as others?

Always, but especially now, it’s important to have people in our lives who keep an eye on us and provide space for examining, reflecting, processing, brainstorming, or whatever else we need at that moment. Sometimes we’re able to recognize difficulties ourselves, as my colleague did, and enlist others to propose and talk through possible solutions or even offer their own ideas. But all too frequently, our dedication to our work and to those our work impacts obscures the deleterious effects overworking has on us. At those times, we need someone who knows us well to take us aside and say, “Hey, the way you’re going about this – I don’t think it’s really healthy or sustainable for you.”

Who in your life serves the role that Jethro served for Moses? In which of your relationships are you Jethro for someone else?