February 10, 2023 - 19th of Sh'vat 5783 - Parashat Yitro 5783 / פָּרָשַׁת יִתְרוֹ
Dear Beit Rabban Community,
I have the idea that we should highlight specific professions at school in connection with the weekly Torah portion. We could study midwifery the week of Parashat Shemot when we read about the midwives' critical role in the Exodus story. We can learn about the field of architecture during the week of Parashat Teruma when we read the detailed designs for the Mishkan. There's a lot more where those ideas came from, and at some point, we will integrate them into the Beit Rabban curriculum. In the meantime, I would like to take the opportunity this week of Parashat Yitro to celebrate the profession of coaching.
Our Torah portion begins with Moshe’s Midianite father-in-law Yitro gathering his daughter Tziporah and her children to travel through the desert and meet up with Moshe and his shell-shocked and newly free Israelite people. It also includes God's revelation at Sinai. Many commentators (and elementary school students) have asked why the parashah that describes the giving of the Torah is named after a Midianite priest! Well, Yitro was no ordinary Midianite priest. Yitro was a remarkable coach.
Yitro coached Moshe to be a better leader, and we read the back and forth of that coaching session in some considerable detail. It is important enough to warrant prime Torah real estate between two of our greatest stories- the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai.
Yitro arrives at his son-in-law’s camp with love and pride. He and Moshe embrace, he listens to Moshe describe all of God’s miracles, and he praises God for the deliverance. Then he proceeds to violate the first and most famous rule of being an in-law: “do not share your opinion!” He critiques Moshe’s leadership and reimagines the entirety of his org structure.
How is it that the Midianite priest, father-in-law of the greatest Israelite leader can prance into his son-in-law’s camp and convince him to entirely reimagine his leadership structure? Needless to say, it is very difficult to hear critical feedback- even when it is not from an in-law. And in this story, Moshe accepts the feedback immediately and integrates it without any drama. What went right here?
I suggest that Yitro makes it easy to listen to him, as any great coach must do- whether they are a professional coach by training, a supervisor, a parent, a teacher, or a friend. Yitro approaches Moshe with love, interest, and pride in his accomplishments. He then looks with curiosity at Moshe and his circumstances, noticing what can be hard for a person to notice about themself. Next, he approaches Moshe with questions rather than jumping to solutions and assuming that he understands on his own. He listens closely to Moshe’s responses. And only after these steps does he share his opinion that Moshe is going to burn out if he does not change his systems, and he recommends a specific and more sustainable system. Finally, he reassures Moshe that if he makes these changes, God will be with him and things will work out.
School is a constant feedback loop between teachers, parents, children, and administrators: teachers just sent out progress reports to parents, the staff is about to participate in a 360 evaluation process of the senior team, and so on. And, we talk a lot as a Beit Rabban leadership team about how to make it easy for people to give us feedback and what sort of behaviors and attitudes that demands of us. We understand that the organization we love is stronger when all stakeholders share their opinions. Reading this parashah also makes me think about how we might work harder to make it easier for someone to hear feedback.
The strength of the school-family partnership depends in large measure on our ability to say hard things to each other in ways that are hearable. In striving toward this, we can take our cue from the best coaches like Yitro. Start by caring and being invested in the other’s success and fulfillment. Listen closely. Ask curious questions. Say hard things clearly and non-judgmentally. And believe in the other’s ability to grow.
Parashat Yitro feels like an appropriate time to affirm that our staff and teachers are committed to making it easy for parents and students to share hard things with us, feedback or otherwise. We are also committed to sharing with you- parents and students- in a way that is easier to hear. Please let us know how we are doing on these commitments. I believe, as Yitro assures Moshe, that things work out when we engage courageously and lovingly. At the very least, we will be modeling some great coaching practices for our children.
Wishing all a relaxing and rejuvenating Shabbat,