Care for Yourself, as Yitro Instructed Moses

This Dvar Torah was written by Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D. and was originally published by San Diego Jewish World

Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash

Ever feel so alone when struggling with an adversity – health, financial, relationship – that it feels as if the world simply doesn’t understand or can’t relate to your pain? Could it be that in this week’s Torah reading, Moshe feels similarly, having experienced his own traumatic and exhausting experience, followed by anxiety and despair.


“And Moses said to Hashem, ‘Why have you been so cruel to Your servant?… I cannot carry this whole people by myself, for it is too much for me. If You would deal thus with me, kill me instead, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!”


When Yitro, the non-Israelite Midianite priest, learns what Moshe is going through, he realizes that his son-in-law is urgently in need of emotional support. We all know people experiencing extreme emotional upset. Here’s what Yitro does…he respectfully takes the initiative to reach out, telling Moshe in advance he’s coming, and who he is bringing with him. Rashi tells us that Yitro’s heart was moved to leave his position of glory and go out to the barren wilderness of pain Moshe was experiencing.


Yitro says to Moshe, “‘I, your father-in-law Yitro, am coming to you, with your wife and her two sons.’ Moses went out to meet his father-in law; he bowed low and kissed him; each asked after the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent. Moses then recounted to his father-in-law everything… all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how Hashem had delivered them.”


Yitro, watching Moshe sit from morning to evening, alone, judging case after case brought to him, speaks up: “And the father-in-law of Moshe said to him, ‘The thing you do is not good. You will surely become worn out — you as well as this people that is with you… Now listen to my voice. I will advise you and may G-d be with you.”


Moshe was unsure what to do, so he handled things the best way he could, by doing it all by himself. He needed help. In moments of feeling overwhelmed, the pressure to maintain self-sufficiency can be detrimental to our psychological well-being. As uncertainty and emotional distress cloud our judgment, we might engage in defensive withdrawal, isolating ourselves and attempting to soldier on alone. This activation of our fight-or-flight response may stem from a deep-seated belief in self-reliance or a fear of appearing vulnerable. However, suppressing our emotions and neglecting to seek support can exacerbate stress, leading to cognitive distortions and hindering our ability to cope effectively.


Reaching out for help during such times signifies not weakness, but rather an act of strength, of psychological self-care. It allows us to tap into our external resources, fostering a sense of connectedness and alleviating the burden of isolation. Sharing our struggles with another can promote emotional healing, facilitating a shift in perspective and the development of healthier coping mechanisms. Additionally, the act of seeking help itself can foster a sense of empowerment and control, challenging negative self-beliefs and promoting resilience.


Therefore, acknowledging our limitations and actively seeking support during periods of emotional turmoil is crucial for safeguarding our mental health. It represents a proactive approach to emotional well-being, fostering psychological growth and resilience in the face of life’s challenges.


Navol tivol, you will wilt away, Yitro tells Moshe. You will exhaust yourself and the people will suffer more. Not only that, while you are sitting to judge alone, Yitro explains, “It is a burden on the people as well making them wait for another to be judged.” Yitro goes on, “Pray for the Jews, teach them Torah — but you cannot judge them all by yourself. You must choose other wise men from among the Jews to sit as judges.” Moshe accepts Yitro’s advice and institutes, with Hashem’s blessing, the leadership and judicial system that we see currently in our tradition.


When you take on more than is reasonable, what are you thinking that leads you to do so and therefore weaken yourself? When is too much, too much for you? Does being a perfectionist, thinking you “must” do it all, and do it all alone, make much sense? When the task becomes more valuable to you than your own wellbeing, you are heading for what we call “compassion fatigue,” a form of burnout. Self-care is a required building block of caring for others.


Life unfolds like a desert journey. Sometimes we are the weary Moshe, burdened and seeking solace. Other times, we are the wise Yitro, offering a listening ear and gentle guidance. As the giver, we would be wise to be like Yitro: approach with open arms, wisdom whispered, and a heart ready to understand. As the receiver, be like Moshe: open to unexpected help, for healing can bloom in the most unlikely places. Trust, embrace, and let your spirit be renewed. We are all both Moshe and Yitro, flowing in the dance of life, giving and receiving the gifts of our shared humanity.


Like Moshe, burdened by his flock, we often wear ourselves thin in service. But just as Yitro offered wise counsel to Moshe to share the burden, remember that neglecting your own wellspring weakens you and those you serve. Self-care isn’t indulgence, it’s sacred stewardship. It nourishes your spirit, sharpens your mind, and fuels your compassion. Listen to the gentle whispers from within and from others, for they guide you to restful waters and renewed strength. Not only will you benefit, but others relying on you benefit as well.


Think of it like tending a garden. You wouldn’t neglect yourself while nurturing flowers. By prioritizing your well-being, you become a radiant source of love and support, not a flickering ember struggling to sustain itself. This is how we prevent “burnout.” As it’s said, put the mask on yourself before taking care of others. A physician who is burned out is not nearly as much value to his/her/their patients as one who highlights his/her/their own self-care.


So, breathe deeply. Rest, recharge, and reconnect with your inner spark. For in caring for yourself, you truly answer the call to serve others in the most profound way.


Remember, even the mightiest mountains find solace in the earth’s embrace. Let self-care be your foundation, and watch your light reach even higher. Isn’t this is what Shabbat is for?

Shabbat Shalom