The names of each week’s Torah reading are always derived from a significant word in the 1st verse that’s full of lessons. This week’s portion is called Yitro (Jethro). The reading begins, Vayishma Yitro (And Yitro heard). What exactly did Moses’ father-in-law hear? The Torah (Ex. 18:1) tells us: kol asheyr asa Elokim l’Moshe ul’Yisrael amo, “everything that Gd had done for Moses and the Jewish people”—which no doubt included the 10 Plagues, the Exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea. These are the events that defined us as a people—culminating with Gd’s revelation of the 10 Commandments and the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai in today’s parsha.
All these happenings were the catalyst for Yitro—this former priest of Midian—to reorder his life and become part of the Jewish people. It’s amazing if you think about it. The name of today’s Torah portion should have been Moshe because it was Moshe that helped bring the 10 Plagues; it was Moshe that helped part the waters of the Red Sea; and it was Moshe that brought us the Torah from Mt. Sinai. And yet the name of today’s Torah portion is not Moshe, but Yitro.
To heighten the question further, Yitro was a not even Jewish, and yet, he has the honor of the name of the Torah portion where the Torah and 10 Commandments were given. Amazing! And yes, this is precisely the point! Yitro converted and became a Jew of choice. What the Torah is showing us is that the Torah is not meant just for the Jews, but for the entire world. This is a wonderful illustration of someone who saw the light, came to the Jewish people and accepted the Torah. Similarly we can ask: why was the Torah was given in the desert of Sinai and not in the Land of Israel? Because a desert is no-man’s land—which is another way of saying it is everyone’s land. Bottom line: Gd’s Torah is for everyone.
There are 3 chapters in this Torah reading. Exodus, chapter 18, is all about the interaction between Moses and Yitro. Chapter 19 describes the events leading up to the giving of the Torah. Chapter 20 is the 10 Commandments. There is a very profound message in the way this reading is structured and it relates to the very 1st word of the Torah portion: Vayishma (heard), Yitro heard. The musical note on this word is geyrshayim which is used to place emphasis on the word. If you think about it, this is a bit unusual because the simple fact that Yitro heard should not seem as significant as what he heard that led him to convert. Why is there such emphasis specifically on this word, Vayishma (heard)?
The Torah here is teaching us something about the art of listening. My work as a couples’ therapist has shown me that the primary problem people have in relationships is that they feel that they are not listened to. Gd gave us the Torah—the most precious gift of all—but if we don’t listen to its message, what good is it.
There are too many people who miss the message. At the end of last week’s Torah reading we see a whole nation that missed it—Amalek, the archenemy of the Jewish people. Amalek also heard about the 10 Plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea. Their response? Attack the Jewish people. Yitro was aware of the same miracles and Vayishma—he listened to Gd’s message and it changed his life. According to the Midrash, Yitro had tried every form of idolatry of his time. He searched and searched till he came to the conclusion that Judaism was the path of Truth.
My friends, Gd sends us messages all the time. How will we respond to those messages? Will we be like Yitro or Amalek. Both became aware of the same events yet their responses differed radically.
The human brain 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 phone numbers in the entire world…take all of these together and it would not reach even 1% of the brain of one human being! Is it possible that this amazing creation came about by chance? One can look at the brain and see the miracles of Gd and respond like Yitro…or one can be an Amalek, close one’s eyes to the truth and say there is no Gd.
Gd’s messages are all around us; we just have to notice. Perhaps this is why the reading is called Yitro—after one who was searching for Truth, paid attention and listened to it when it stared him in the face. My friends, we have to listen for the Truth, be receptive to it and even be open to change who we are based on the messages that Gd sends us.
In honor of George Washington’s birthday I’d like to share a story with you. There’s this family that lives on a farm. The father calls his 3 sons, Anthony, Louis and Nick, into the kitchen. He says to them, “Which one of you pushed the outhouse into the river?”
“Not I,” replied Anthony.
“Nor me,” Louis said.
“It wasn't me either, father,” said Nick.
So the father says, “I want to tell you a story about George Washington. One day George Washington’s father gave him a hatchet. Then, George Washington chopped down his father’s favorite cherry tree. George Washington’s father asked, ‘George, who chopped down my favorite cherry tree?’ George Washington said, ‘Father, I cannot tell a lie, it was me.’ So George Washington’s father hugged and kissed his son for being honest with him.”
Then Anthony said, “Father, I, like George Washington, cannot tell a lie, I pushed the outhouse into the river.” The father takes off his belt and starts beating him. After he got the beating Anthony says, “But father, I was honest like George Washington.”
The father replies, “But George Washington’s father wasn’t in the cherry tree when he chopped it down!”
Yes Anthony heard his father’s George Washington story, but he didn’t realize how different his story was just as he didn’t pay attention to see if the outhouse was occupied when he pushed it into the river.
The art of listening is about paying attention and being willing to shift our positions and see the world from a different perspective. Yitro exemplified this ability and so did Moses. When Yitro arrives with Moses’ wife and children, one of the 1st things he does is criticize Moses for the way he was judging the people singlehandedly. People were standing around waiting all day for Moses to hear their case. Yitro tells him he must set up a system of many judges so that judging the people will be more manageable.
Put yourself in Moses’ shoes: He led the Jewish people through the 10 Plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea; he stared down Pharaoh—the most powerful man in his world; he led the Jews through the great miracle of the manna falling from Heaven; he brought forth water from a rock; and he is about to lead the people to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. He has achieved so much—more than any other human being— and the 1st thing his father-in-law does when he comes is to tell him how to conduct his business? How would you react?
When someone criticizes us, the natural tendency is to defend ourselves. We think, “What right do they have to say that?” But Moses didn't do that. Moses heard his father-in-law’s criticism, and humbly admits that Yitro had a good point and so he changed his behavior. What’s interesting is that the Torah uses the same word for Moses as it had for Yitro: Vayishma (heard). This time it was Moses that heard. Moses was willing to listen and be open to go in a different direction.
Maimonides writes (Laws of Repentance 4) that one of the greatest obstacles to repentance is the inability to hear constructive criticism. When someone who loves and cares about us tells us where we have done wrong, we must be receptive to it because this is the basis of personal growth. Sometimes we get so stuck in our ways with a stubborn arrogance and inflexibility that prevents us from being able to change. The Torah urges us to be open to listen to Gd’s messages in our lives and to change as a result. This is why the Talmud often begins a lesson with Ta shma (come and hear). When we are ready to hear—to really listen—we are ready to learn and grow.
So my friends, don’t be stuck in your ways. Be open to the possibilities of the lessons of life that come your way. And then even when you reach the age of Moses—who was 80 in our Torah portion—and Yitro—who was considerably older—you will continue to grow and be a blessing. Admittedly, I’m not quite that old this week. I only hope and pray that Gd will help me to always be open to life’s messages—the messages He sends me and all of us…as were the Jewish people on Sinai, who when they accepted the Torah said in one voice (Ex. 24:7): Naaseh v’nishma (We will do and we will hear). Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis