A non-religious Jew was involved in a heated conversation with the famous mussar giant known as the Alter of Novardok (1847-1919). They were discussing Torah ideas and the role of Hashem in the world. Two hours into their battle of words, the man ordered his carriage brought to him and then continued speaking with the Alter. The Alter was now silent. “Why are you so quiet, asked the man. The Alter replied, “When you ordered your carriage, you clearly indicated you are preparing to leave, yet we have not finished our conversation. If you were to prove your position, I would join your way of living. I expect the same of you! But I see you have no intention of listening to me and considering the truth. This is just sport to you, so there is no point in continuing the conversation.”
This sets the stage for a key point in our parsha. What does it mean to truly listen?
There is a dispute amongst the Sages whether Yitro came to join Moshe and the Jewish people prior to Matan Torah (giving of the Torah) or afterward. If he came afterward, why would the Torah record the story of Yitro as coming before Matan Torah?
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, rosh yeshiva of the Mir, explains that in recording the story of Yitro before Matan Torah, the Torah is teaching a fundamental requirement for living a Torah life. Our parsha begins with the words “Vayishma Yitro”—Yitro heard. What exactly did Yitro hear that made him leave everything to join the Jewish nation in the desert? Rashi tells us that he heard about the splitting of the sea and the defeat of Amalek.
We know from other commentaries that every body of water in the world, big or small, even a cup of tea, split at the moment of the splitting of the Yam Suf (Red Sea). Across the globe, everyone knew! “The nations of the world heard and were terrified. The people of Philistia trembled in fright.... all the inhabitants of Canaan melted.” Indeed, millions of people heard of this event, so why did only Yitro take action? It’s because only Yitro really “heard.” True, everyone heard, but no one else was truly listening. The prerequisite to receiving the Torah is truly listening, which is the essential quality of being receptive to and acting on what we hear.
This lesson is illustrated with Yitro’s arrival. Yitro tells Moshe—the leader who had just successfully led the Jewish people out of Egypt, the superpower of the world, who had caused the sea to split and defeated Amalek—that Moshe’s system of courts and counseling for the Bnei Yisrael is doomed to failure! Moshe humbly listens and follows Yitro’s advice. This, points out the Ibn Ezra, demonstrates Moshe’s quality of being receptive, as the Torah records, “Vayishma Moshe.” Moshe heard, internalized the message and acted on it, even though he was the leader and Yitro was a new convert.
The wisest of all men—Shlomo Hamelech—said, “The ear that listened to rebuke/advice for life dwells among the wise” (Mishlei 15:31). Indeed, the second of the 48 ways to acquire Torah (Avot 6:3) is “an attentive ear.” The Mishna in Sotah says that in the end of days, people will hate criticism. We now live in a society of “live and let live.” Do what you want but don’t tell me what I should or shouldn’t do. With this view, we need to ask ourselves: have we lost the quality of being receptive? Are we really receptive to listen to other people? Are we aware of and sensitive to the world around us? More importantly, are we honestly receptive to hear what Hashem wants us to do?
While it’s difficult to take criticism, it’s an essential requirement for learning. Self-improvement simply won’t happen if we turn a deaf ear to those who criticize us or to those who offer a different view. Who is a wise man? One who learns from everyone. (Avot 4:1)
This Shabbat of Parshat Yitro, let’s focus on truly listening and being willing to act. Yitro did it and was rewarded with a parsha named in his honor. We must do so as well. It will make us better people and better Jews.
By Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim
Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is the associate rosh yeshiva of Passaic Torah Institute (PTI)/Yeshiva Ner Boruch. PTI has attracted people from all over northern New Jersey, including Teaneck, Bergenfield, Paramus, Rockaway and Fair Lawn. He initiated and continues to lead a full multi-level gemara learning program in the evenings, gives halacha and hashkafah shiurim on Shabbat and, more recently, has spread out beyond PTI to begin a weekly Beit Medrash program with in-depth chavruta learning in both Livingston and Springfield, New Jersey.