Where is Our Wisdom? Jethro and Moses

Recently, I’ve had some conversations with friends and professional peers, where the word ‘wisdom’ has come up….

© Susan J Katz

…our discussions often include the big topic of how to navigate what lies ahead as the pandemic shifts and moves forward; indeed, none of us has lived through any extended world disruption as has been caused by this current global pandemic.

We speak of our personal lives and compare how we are doing. I am doing fine, all things considered. With my own paradigm shift, brought about by a relocation to a new city in 2020, just as the pandemic hit Canada and extended sheltering at home ensued, there were no precedents of a life with former habits to compare with. Being newly settled, I had no former routines, such as  favourite restaurants, school or work, or ways of making ends meet that might be disrupted; and my housing was safe and secure.

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From the picture windows in my home, these days I watch life go on outside. Cars drive past, people walk dogs, meet and dine at picnic tables across the street in the park (even when it’s -10ºC), squirrels chase each other and fight over buried acorns or partners; the sun rises behind me, beautiful sunsets fill my afternoon picture window, rivers of clouds pass over, and winds blow and the moon passes through its phases – all in good order.

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But, the news headlines give quite a different story. One recurrent theme is that there is a Mental Health Crisis. Attributed to the pandemic and reiterated as if a breaking story, the almost inescapable exposés and interviews focus on people struggling to live and attend school and work from home, often in close quarters, without their former ways of physically distancing themselves. Stories of lost income due to jobs that have evaporated, of small businesses having to shut down, of people not being able to pay rent, and of evictions.

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We get media ‘feel good’ stories, too. There is the young man who makes air filter systems for homebound senior citizens, the young woman who goes for brisk walks in the -20ºC weather and gleefully tells everyone to get out and enjoy the weather, and volunteers manning vaccination clinics.

 

 

Reports of systemic stress include the curtailing of health care services. Elective surgeries, necessary cancer care, and even care for COVID patients are being portioned out and triaged or postponed. The high costs and impairment of health care systems are the result of health care systems not designed for the huge influx of acutely ill patients. This is also driven along by the high rate of front line health care workers who are unable to work, losses due to their becoming ill, burnout, and being attracted to less risky, more predictable jobs.

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People express their angst in various ways. One person, who went to the local emergency department in their community with an infection, found a 3-hour wait just to see a triage nurse, let alone get into a queue to see a doctor. They told me they went home and treated it with a poultice recipe recalled from childhood, declaring: “We’ve gone back to Medieval times! We’re replacing medical care with folkways and home remedies!”

Other people reactivate and share their own fears: hording is particularly popular. When the announcements began about the Omicron variant, one person’s reaction was, “We’re going to run out of toilet paper, people are going to horde again, better stock up.”

 

Young people are particularly hit hard. I know many are doing very well, but even in my small world, I experience other who are not – acting out, with hair triggers on their rage. I consider myself a mild-mannered senior citizen, but when I take a walk and a woman half my age and twice my size shoulder checks me as she passes by on the sidewalk and then chases me, shouting, “You punched me! You just punched me!”, I have to attribute it to an unmet need to blame someone for something, no matter who or what it is. The young man living upstairs from me has taken to stomping around and slamming drawers and doors so hard that my dishes and windows rattle, as if having temper tantrums throughout the day. And then there was the woman lurking about in an underground parking garage who ran up to my car screaming, “You are a white racist, get out of here! Just because you’re white and I’m brown doesn’t mean you can park wherever you want to!”

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We look to our leaders, whether politicians or high ranking medical advisors, for their expertise and guidance and regulations that should protect us from the virus and all the chaos that it causes. Sadly, many of them are becoming stymied by the ongoing modulations of virus behaviour, and hence it seems we are hearing inconsistent or vague predictions or mandates. Beyond these public appearances beginning to lose their appeal and caché, they seem to provide no clear path to follow, as if we are now in the midst of the jungle, armed only with a machete to chop out a path; if we only knew which way to chop.

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And, how will we know? How will we know locally, regionally, nationally, globally, or personally, what the correct path is? And, will it be the same path for all?

Perhaps the Torah can show us how to navigate and move forward.

This Shabbat, from parashat Yitro (Jethro) in the Book of Exodus, we read of an important conversation between Moses and his father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro).

In this section, Yitro pulls aside Moses, who is still the single and primary leader and guide for all of the Israelites, and gives him some sage advice. Yitro himself is a minister or priest of the Midian people, so his acumen as a spiritual leader is well-established. He has observed how being a singular figure for such a multitude is becoming an untenable role for Moses. Yitro is also aware of his own foresight, seeing what trouble will be lying ahead if this keeps up. Yitro comes from his place of background and silence, and now steps up, saying to Moses,

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“You will surely become worn out – you as well as this people that is with you – for this matter is too hard for you, you will not be able to do it alone.”

Yitro takes further action, going beyond simply telling or retelling this headline news: his wisdom tells him it is time to give advice to Moses, based upon learned knowledge and insight. Yitro keeps it simple and direct: delegate out responsibilities. He also gives Moses a road map, and lays out the qualities for the people who Moses should choose: accomplished, God-fearing, truthful, and despising of money. These chosen representatives will be assigned locally, regionally, nationally, to settle minor disputes; major disputes will be brought to Moses to resolve.

The particulars of creating a tiered judicial system may not the exact situation relevant to how to navigate our modern pandemic. What is relevant, though, is the harkening to wisdom we are shown in this story.

First, Yitro must make up his mind, that although he is a foreigner, and a father-in-law and not Moses’ father, it is time for him to speak up. But, he does not speak meekly or in euphemisms, or offer vague suggestions, or fall flat as one of many opinions that Moses hears every day from his stiff-necked crowd of lost Israelites. Instead, Torah sets the tone by telling us that Yitro is a minister, a person of insight, of wisdom, one who knows how to apply insight for the good of others as well as themself and for those close to him.

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Not everyone wears a mantle of priesthood, as Yitro did. However, we all do have our gifts or talents or abilities, and hopefully we know what they are, and which ones we do not have. This is part of personal growth. It is also the beginning of assuming wisdom. As we grow older, we leave behind the youthful and folly days of testing ourselves and others; elders have come a long way, have overcome and survived challenges, and discerned patterns of how the world works. It is our duty, as we grow and become elders, to impart this learned and processed knowledge to our offspring and future generations.

Sometimes we accept the belief that only those wearing a mantle of authority – ministers, artists, chiefs, pols and elders – have all the answers. But the truth is, Wisdom is not reserved for specially set apart or elevated experts.

It can affect mental health and self-confidence to believe that only others have the answers. When others’ views are so vague or indecisive or downright contradictory, we can filter and glean from them what works best for ourselves. Rather than feeling as if a bug stuck on a pin, swirling and twirling, gnawing and thrashing around and at others, we can trust in ourselves to grow and find novel solutions that we can live with.

Perhaps this is the time to be Yitro, or to be Moses. You know who you are in this story.

If you are Yitro and have deep insight and have navigated life’s challenges successfully, speak up, share your wisdom with others: your children, the merchant whose shelves are almost empty, in simple ways when you are out, in conversation with people you care about.

If you are Moses, accept wise counsel when you are overwhelmed, or about to become overwhelmed. Delegate your burdens to people you trust and who have navigated challenges well in the past. Take time to reflect and recall who those good people are and were in your life. This recollection of good influences, in and of itself, can open up a pathway through the jungle.

The Israelites of old didn’t have a road map, either. Thankfully, we have their legacy, through stories such as the conversation between Yitro and Moses, in the Torah.