There’s an the old story of the psychologist who was asked by a friend, “Tell me, how can you listen hour after hour, day after day, week after week, to people who pour out their frustrations and tales of woe from your couch?” To which the psychologist shrugs his shoulders and says, “Who listens?”
Yes, who listens anymore? We all know arrogant and opinionated people who refuse to listen to anyone. Then there are those who are so preoccupied with themselves—with what they want and with what they think they need—that they’re simply deaf to the rest of the world. They are so full of themselves, there’s no room for anyone else in their lives. And then there is a 3rd category to which most of us belong: those who are so busy listening to words that don’t really deserve a hearing—to much of the nonsense we hear in the media these days, for example—that we have little time or patience for words that could make a difference.
This week’s Torah portion begins: Vayishma Yitro, “And Jethro heard.” Rashi, in his commentary, asks: What exactly did Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law hear?” The Torah tells us it was, “everything that Gd had done for Moses and the Jewish people,” and Rashi adds, “including the splitting of the Red Sea and the war with Amalek.” Those amazing happenings were the catalyst for Jethro, a shepherd and priest of Midian, to reorder his entire life and join the Jewish people.
Also in today’s Torah reading we have the most important event of Jewish history—the giving of the Torah. Gd had never revealed Himself before or since to an entire people as He did at Sinai. It would only make sense, then, that this Torah reading’s name would reflect this amazing event. Yet, surprisingly, our Torah portion is named Yitro, Jethro, who is not even a Jew!
The reading opens with Jethro bringing Moses’ wife and children back to him. They were left behind in Midian when he went to Egypt to free the Jews. And almost as soon as he arrives, Jethro starts criticizing Moses and the judicial process he put in place. Why does the Torah precede the awesome event at Sinai with the story of Jethro?
Let’s take another look at the opening words: Vayishma Yitro, “And Jethro heard.” The word, Vayishma, “he heard,” is sung with the musical cantillation geyrshayim, giving it a special emphasis that creates a pause and makes one take notice. The simple fact that Jethro heard does not seem as significant as what he heard because what he heard led him to change his life. So why have a special emphasis on this word, Vayishma, “he heard?” Rabbi Warren Goldstein—Chief Rabbi of South Africa—suggests (Jewish World Review 12/2/14) that it’s to teach us the art of listening. Gd gave us the Torah but if we don’t listen to its message, if we just let the words pass by as they’re read, we may miss it.
There are people who miss it. Indeed, at the end of last week’s Torah reading there is a whole nation that misses it—Amalek, the archenemy of the Jewish people. They, too, heard about the 10 Plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea. However, their response was to wage war against the Jewish people. When Jethro became aware of the same miracles, Vayishma, he really heard about Gd and it changed his life.
According to the Midrash, Jethro had previously tried all the idolatrous religions of his time, but they proved empty and unfulfilling. He was a spiritual seeker who didn’t stop his search till he came to the conclusion that the Torah is the path of truth. My friends, we can be like Jethro or Amalek. Both became aware of the same events yet their responses were so different.
The human brain weighs about 3 lbs. It has 10 trillion connections. If we would take all the media and telecommunication companies in the world, all the satellites, all the wiring, all the cell phones in the entire world…take all of these together…it would not reach even 1% of the connections in the brain of one human being! One can look at the brain and see the incredible complexities and the miracles of Gd and respond like Jethro, who saw Gd’s hand very clearly in the world. Or one can respond in the spirit of Amalek—that this has nothing to do with Gd. When considering the human brain, some people will be inspired with belief in Gd; others will claim that somehow billions of cells and neurons working together were created through random evolution.
Perhaps this is why the reading is called Yitro, Jethro, after one who was searching for truth, and Vayishma, he listened to what “he heard.” In order to receive the Torah we have to listen for the truth, be receptive to it and be open to change who we are. The art of listening is the ability to be open to see the world from a different perspective. Jethro teaches us that the starting point to receiving Gd’s Torah is to be a good listener. In fact, often when the Talmud wants to bring a proof of something in a discussion concerning a particular law, it says Ta sh’ma, “come and listen.” The most famous verse in the entire Torah is Shema Yisrael, “Listen, Israel.”
Listening is an essential life skill. It means being open to change how you do things—even the direction of your life. That’s what happened to Moses. Remember, when Jethro arrives he goes into this long criticism of Moses, telling him he can’t spend his whole day judging the people by himself. It’s not fair to have the people stand on this long line—some waiting all day for their turn. 2-3 million people cannot be served by only one judge. Jethro advises him to set up a system to share the judging so it will be more manageable and the people will be better served.
Put yourself in Moses’ shoes: He’s 80 years old; he’s stared down Pharaoh, the most powerful man of his time; he led the Jewish people through the 10 Plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea; he brought water from the rock and he’s about to lead the people to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. He achieved more than any man in history and then Jethro comes and criticizes him. How would you react?
When someone brings us criticism, our natural inclination is to defend ourselves saying, “What right have they to say that? Who do they think they are?” But that wasn’t Moses. In fact, the Torah (Numbers 12:3) describes Moses as an anav mikol adam, “the most humble of all people.” Moses hears his father-in-law’s criticism, and humbly acknowledges that he has a good point. He brings Jethro’s suggestion to Gd, Who instructs him to accept his advice.
What’s interesting is that the Torah uses the same word, Vayishma, “and he listened,” to describe Moses as it did Jethro in the beginning of our Torah reading. Just as Jethro really listened as he heard about all that Gd had done for the Jewish people and then changed his life…so Moses—exercising great humility—really listened to Jethro’s criticism and made changes in his leadership.
This episode is recorded just before we receive the Torah to teach us that a prerequisite to receiving the Torah is to be humble and ready to really listen—to be open to new ideas and new perspectives.
Sometimes we only hear what we want to hear—and sometimes the costs can be high. Like the $100,000 error caused by a dispatcher who routed a fleet of trucks to the wrong state because he heard that the trucks were to go to Portland, but quit listening before the state was given. The result: 8 trucks were sent 3,000 miles out of the way to Portland, Oregon, instead of to Portland, Maine. (Diana Bonet, “The Business Of Listening,” as quoted in Entrepreneur 5/93.)
During my 30 years as a rabbi, many have come to unburden their hearts and souls to me. If I were at liberty to speak, I could tell a long tale of woes. And so I don’t exaggerate when I say that in most instances the trouble is an inability to really listen—to receive what is being said, to really “get it!”: men and women, parents and children, siblings who won’t or don’t know how to listen to each other. Why does one raise one’s voice and yell? That’s right, because one feels that no one is listening.
This is why Yitro, Jethro, is a most appropriate name for the Torah portion where we read about Gd revealing Himself and giving us the Torah. It challenges us to consider that while we can come to shule and hear the Torah portion read, are we really listening with an open mind and humble spirit—ready to consider change? Moses was 80 years old—a time where most people have all their opinions set in stone. Yet Moses was prepared to listen with humility and openness. Jethro, most likely, was even older, yet when confronted with the truth about Gd, he changed his whole life.
In today’s Haftorah, Isaiah (6:10) denounces the Jewish people because their hearts have become fat and hard, their ears have become hard of hearing and their eyes were sealed. In other words, they were too comfortable and refused to consider any change. In my class on Sunday mornings I have presented what I consider irrefutable proof that the Torah is the word of Gd. When you hear such proof do you really listen? Are you prepared to allow it to change your life?
May we learn the art of listening from Moses and Jethro and be open to change from to the words of Torah and those of our loved ones. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis