This week’s D’var Torah from Rabbi Zahavit

NEMS Rabbi Zahavit


In last week’s parsha it was Bring-Your-Father-In-Law-To-Work-Day.

Jethro is impressed and predicts that Moses will burn out.

Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” Moses replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one party and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.”

But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” (Exodus 18:13-18)

Burnout is not a new thing. But 24/7 connectivity, and before that the Protestant work ethic, and also of course the current cost-of-living crisis have definitely exacerbated an existing tendency.

Anyway, going back a few thousand years, Jethro advises expanding the leadership team. And that’s still a great answer to overwork. It’s also a really important check on the egotistical dangers of leadership.

Since September at NNLS (my big shul with well over 3500 members), Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg and I have been joined by two recently ordained brand-new 20-something rabbis. They are both very learned, emotionally intelligent, and full of energy with amazing rabbinic futures ahead of them.

My workload has already lightened. And also changed. I find myself thinking a lot about how to support each of them in building a long-term rabbinic career. I feel responsible for encouraging them to set up sustainable working practices and making wise choices. And also setting up reasonable expectations in our communities for what rabbis do.

All of this is a long way round of saying that I’m going on holiday for a couple of weeks. And also that I’m engaged in a bigger project of figuring out how to make my own rabbinic work more manageable. As always, there’s nothing new under the sun, burnout isn’t a new thing, and the Torah already offered some ideas about how to manage it.

Wishing you well, and I’ll be back with my next message at the end of the month.