Truly Hearing Others


We are a people who believes in hearkening, or listening,[2] but only when it leads to action. After all, the phrase that has been called by some “the watchword of our faith,” the last words one is supposed to say every day and at the end of one’s life, is שמע ישראל, “Hear O Israel.” However, it is not enough to merely hearken; rather we need to translate that listening into action, as demonstrated by the ואהבת, which illustrates all the ways we must communicate our knowledge of G-d to future generations. After all, one of the reasons our people was chosen to receive the Torah is because we said נעשה ונשמע,[3] that doing is primary before listening.[4]

The first chapter of Parshat Yitro centers on this theme of hearkening. It begins וישמע יתרו, Yitro heard of all that G-d had done for Moses.[5] Yitro praises the Adonai, the G-d of the Israelites, for saving Israel from the hand of Pharaoh, saying that He is greater than all other gods. Afterwards, he notices Moses’ behavior in being the sole judge and jury of all of Israel. Yitro advises him to appoint other judges so that Moses does not get burnt out. After giving this advice, the text reads וישמע משה לקול חתנו, Moses hearkened to the voice of his father-in-law.[6]

The commentators raise two central questions regarding this passage: why didn’t Moses think of Yitro’s approach on his own and why did the advice come from Yitro rather than directly from G-d? Toledot Yitzhak, Rabbi Isaac Karo, asserts that Moses thought of delegating but wanted it to come from a disinterested third party. Why? So the Israelites would not think that Moses was shirking his responsibilities![7] When someone does more that his/her fair share, it can be taken for granted, or worse, it can become public perception that this is part of his/her job description. So that it did not appear that Moses was “cutting back,” leading the rumor mills to start, it was best that a foreigner make the suggestion.

Ralbag, or Gersonides, has a very different answer. He asserts that Moses, as great a teacher as he was, did not think of delegating the judiciary. Only after hearing Yitro’s advice did he recognize that Yitro’s approach was better, and he followed it.[8] As great as Moses was, he did not have all the answers, and he acknowledged that Yitro was correct. The mark of a great leader is to know when to take hold of the advice of others versus when to disregard it; in this case, Moses recognized the benefit from Yitro’s advice, and he took hold of it.

The second question, as to why the advice came directly from Yitro rather than from G-d, is of interest to commentators, especially as the verse concludes ויעש כל אשר אמר, that Moses did everything that Yitro said.[9] This is often the language used to demonstrate obedience to G-d’s command, yet here it is being used to demonstrate that Moses took Yitro’s advice! Tzror HaMor comments that the words of Yitro really came from G-d. Why then didn’t G-d tell Moses directly? So that the Israelites would be aware of Yitro’s wisdom and that for this reason Moses married his daughter.[10] In the traditional Mi Sheberach for a baby naming, we pray that the baby girl marries a Torah scholar; here we show that Yitro, while not a Torah scholar, was not a נאך-שלעפער noch-shlepper, but rather a man of wisdom like Moses.

Or HaHayim goes one step further, asserting that G-d wanted to show Israel that there are among non-Jews great giants of understanding and insight.[11] Our tradition has always mentioned that there are non-Jews of great knowledge and abilities. There is even a blessing for an outstanding secular scholar, ברוך…שנתן מחכמתו לבשר ואדם, blessed is G-d who has given of His knowledge to human beings.[12]

Two lessons come to mind from Yitro hearkening to G-d followed by Moses hearkening to Yitro. The first is that true listening leads to changed behavior. If someone gives us worthwhile advice and we listen to it but don’t change our behavior, it has made no impact on us. The words come into one ear and go out the other. If, on the other hand, we listen carefully to what they’re saying, discern it for deeper truths, and make a change in our lives for our betterment, we have truly heard them.

The second lesson is that we can find words of wisdom from everyone, whether Jewish or not. As a rabbi, I would argue that we should first turn to the great wealth of our tradition, the words of the Torah, the Talmud and the great rabbis. However, that does not mean that we cannot find similar pearls of wisdom from non-Jewish sources. Plus who knows-maybe G-d is communicating to us through this non-traditional medium as well.

Let us strive this week to actually listen to the words given by the people who we encounter and determine if they have merit. In the end we might choose to disregard them, but at least we should hearken to them with both ears open and with serious intention. May we truly hearken to the words of others and take their advice whenever practical and helpful.

[1] From School of Rock’s If Only You Would Listen

[2] For this sermon I will use the two words synonymously

[3] Exodus 24:7

[4] Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael, Section HaHodesh, Chapter 5.

[5] Exodus 19:1

[6] Exodus 18:24

[7] Toledot Yitzhak on Exodus 18:21 ואתה תחזה מכל העם אנשי חיל…

[8] Ralbag on Exodus 18:24 וישמע משה…התועלת הי”ד

[9] Exodus 18:24

[10] Tzror Hamor on Exodus 18:24 וישמע משה

[11] Or HAHayim on Exodus 18:24 וישמע משה

[12] Found in The Complete Artscroll Siddur, Page 236.

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