Yitro 2021: The Gravity of Individualism

Our Torah teaches it is not good for us to live or work alone, but how do we also maintain our sense of self? How do we balance individualism and relationships with others? Our tradition gives us an excellent guide, both in Adam, Eve and the animal kingdom and in Moses and the Israelites

In America, we have always valorized the idea of the strong, stoic individual who can lead the people. It is a cliche about us the world over. John Wayne exemplifies this American archetype, but we find it still today - in the lifting up of individuals as heroic for their solitary work. 

Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, even Bill Gates are all seen as representing this individualistic ideal. But, one of the clearest lessons of this pandemic is that individualism has severe limitations that we must move beyond. Luckily we have the Torah, which has already identified this issue. In our weekly Torah portion, Moses learns this very lesson. He starts his role as leader of the Israelite nation by personally adjudicating every issue, even the most minor, that arises. Shortly after he begins, his father in law comes for a visit. 

A priest and leader himself, Yitro, for whom the portion is named, tells Moses that what he’s doing is completely wrong headed. When he sees Moses doing all of this work on his own, he says to Moses, “לֹא־טוֹב֙ הַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתָּ֖ה עֹשֶֽׂה׃” - It is not good, this thing that you are doing. This may seem like a very basic statement, but hiding within it is a great secret - and one we Americans need to learn. Lo tov - not good - is a rare phrase in the Torah. It is used only here, and one other place - when God sees Adam alone in the Garden and says, “לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂהּ־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ׃”- It is not good for the human to be alone, I shall make for him an “Ezer K’negdo” - a helper over against him.”These two instances are clearly related. In both, one individual man is initially given to rule over all. 

In the instance in Genesis, God’s immediate response is to create the animal kingdom, as well as Eve, a human counterpart. In the instance in Exodus, Yitro gives Moses a structure for sharing his authority - taking Moses’ role as intermediary between God and the people as only a piece of a larger system. Ovadia ben Yakov Sforno, a 15th century Italian rabbi, picks up on this in an oblique way. 

He wrote: 

“an ezer k’negdo is a helpmate who will be equal to Adam, another reflection of the divine image.This is essential for him if he is to know what precisely his needs are and so that he can meet them in time. The reason why the Torah added the word כנגדו is that whenever one confronts someone of equal power, moral and ethical weight, such a confrontation is termed  - over and against - נגד. It is a head-on collision of will. It is in this sense that we have to understand such statements as משה שקול כנגד כל ישראל “Moses’s voice was, over and against, k’neged, the entire people of Israel.” (Mechilta Yitro 1)

The phrase “Lo Tov” that occurs with both Adam and Moses guides us here as well. Adam needed a reflection of the Divine Image, which was found in the creatures around him and his female counterpart, and Moses needed a reflection of the Divine Image, which was found in the people Israel. Only by seeing each as an equal to them as a reflection of the Divine Image were they able to function correctly, tov, in their capacities. But we can also take from this that the same is true in the opposite direction. Eve needed an ezer k’negdo in Adam and the rest of Creation did as well. And Israel needed an ezer k’negdo in Moses. It is a mutual relationship, 

one in which all parties necessitate the connection in order to be “tov” good, rather than “lo tov” - not good. This way of encountering the world and those around us is going to be all the more important as we today continue into our newly altered future. Having spent time apart from our normal structures we have had the opportunity to reflect on how those structures function.

How do we manage our individualism in relation to others as our ezer k’negdo? Yitro’s advice to Moses helps us here as well. Yitro goes on to say,  

“נָבֹ֣ל תִּבֹּ֔ל גַּם־אַתָּ֕ה גַּם־הָעָ֥ם הַזֶּ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר עִמָּ֑ךְ כִּֽי־כָבֵ֤ד מִמְּךָ֙ הַדָּבָ֔ר לֹא־תוּכַ֥ל עֲשֹׂ֖הוּ לְבַדֶּֽךָ׃” “

“You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well.  For the task is too kaveid for you; you cannot do it alone.”

The word kaveid is usually translated as heavy in this instance, but it is more nuanced than that. 

It is the Hebrew root used for how one must treat one’s parents. It is the same root used for Pharaoh’s stubborn response to Moses. It is used by God to describe what God gains by publicly freeing the Israelites from Egypt. 

It is used both biblically and rabbinically to refer to God’s presence in our reality.

The word is often translated as honor, but I believe this to be incorrect. Instead, I would suggest gravity, or gravitas. It holds the same sense of “weightiness,” while also referring to an individual’s responsibility. It connotes seriousness, as well as authority. It connotes power and presence. But most importantly, in our contemporary day, it evokes the idea of interconnectedness. 

Gravity is that mysterious force which requires all things to move in relation to each other. Our Torah is teaching us something very important: We can not give ourselves too much gravity. 

Not as individuals, as Moses had mistakenly done, and not as a species or gender, as God’s creation of the animals and Eve in response to Adam’s own alone-ness makes clear. We can not give ourselves too much kavod - we must remember that it is not good, lo tov, and that the real goal is for us to be in relationship, to be k’neged each other, and the world, honoring each piece with its own gravity, as a part of the Divine Image.

This mutuality is the way in which our own gravity and the gravity of those we stand k’neged meet. When we, each of us, maintain that it is lo tov to be alone, and instead follow the guidance of God, and Yitro, we stand in mutual relation to each other, and the world. We hold an awareness of our gravity, so that it doesn’t become too much to bear, so that it doesn’t wear us and others out, but instead, stands in harmonious relation to the gravity of others. As we live an altered existence in which our ability to connect with other directly is often stymied, and in which we see laid bare the ways in which we are reliant upon each other and our environment, may each of us remember that it is lo tov to go it alone We must remember that individualism should not be held up as an ideal in and of itself, but instead used as a way to understand our mutual reliance upon each other and the environment. 

May we remember what is tov - what is good - shevet achim gam yachad - dwelling together as one.