So I want to begin with an old story … a psychologist 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?” Not to disparage therapists, we live in a world today where listening is becoming a relic of the past.
Yes, who listens anymore? We all know arrogant and opinionated people who refuse to listen to anyone. They speak without ever allowing anyone else to participate. 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— we are listing to so much that the important things, that could make a difference, pass us by in the cacophony of our daily lives.
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 God 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.
And also in this week’s Torah reading we have the most important event of Jewish history—the giving of the Torah. God had never become revealed before or since to an entire people as happened 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, וַיִּשְׁמַ֞ע יִתְר֨וֹ 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. I once read a teaching that this is to emphasize our listening to the words. God 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. They did not listen to the story.
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.
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 God’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. I work on it constantly. 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. 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.
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 this Torah reading. Just as Jethro really listened as he heard about all that God had done for the Jewish people and then changed his life…so Moses—exercising great humility—really listened to Jethro’s advice and made changes in his leadership.
What happens when we don’t listen? Well I came across this story.
A dispatcher in a hurry 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. A $100,000 mistake. (Diana Bonet, “The Business Of Listening,” as quoted in Entrepreneur 5/93.)
This is why Yitro, Jethro, is a most appropriate name for the Torah portion where we read about God revealing Himself and giving us the Torah. It challenges us to consider that while we can come to TBT and hear the prayers and the Torah portion being read, are we really listening with an open mind and humble spirit—ready to consider change?
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!