"וישמע יתרו כהן מדין....את כל אשר עשה אלהי'ם למשה...." What is this verse in the Torah trying to teach us? Was Yisro the only one who heard about the exodus from Egypt? The Torah teaches us that the entire world knew about it, as we say in Shiras HaYam, “The nations heard and trembled.” So what is so special about Yisro’s “hearing” what happened?
Rav Shach says that when the Torah tells us that Yisro heard, it doesn’t mean hearing in the conventional sense. People hear things all the time. But that’s not what the Torah defines as hearing. True hearing means choosing to be affected by what comes through your ears. Instead of just moving on with life and continuing a mundane existence, what you hear changes you and helps you evolve as a person. This is how Yisro used his ears. The entire world heard about how G-d took the Jewish people out of Egypt, but they remained unaffected by it, while Yisro took the news seriously and chose to be inspired by it, journeying to the desert and joining the Jewish people. In truth, he was the only one who really heard about the exodus since he changed his entire life because of it. This is why this week’s parsha, which discusses the receiving of the Torah, is called “Parshas Yisro.” Being affected by what we hear is absolutely crucial if we want the Torah to be ingrained in us. Yisro is the role model for this.
We see that the Torah strongly emphasizes the importance of hearing that brings self-improvement. Twice a day we are commanded to say “Shma Yisrael,” accepting and renewing our commitment to believe in Hashem and do His will. In addition, one of the most glorious moments in the entire history of the Jewish people was when we cried “Na’aseh v’nishma,” declaring that we would keep and fully incorporate every principle of the Torah into our lives. The Rabbeinu Yona in Sha’arei Tshuva (chapter 2) says that the ear is the most important limb of the body precisely for the reason that it was designed to receive rebuke from others and help a person do tshuva. If we don’t use our ears to grow spiritually, we’re really forgetting the purpose for which they were created.
If we observe the world around us, we can see that some people use their ears and some people don’t. The famous phrase “in one ear and out the other” sadly applies to most us. Listening is something that has to be worked on. So how does one work on listening? Firstly, the Tiferes Yisrael says in Pirkei Avos (chapter 6) that when you hear somebody saying something that can be useful in your avodas Hashem, you should stop what you’re doing and concentrate on what he’s saying. If you were thinking about something else, get it out of your head. To really listen requires your undivided attention. But you might still find some difficulty in listening. We b’nei yeshiva know how hard it is to maintain our concentration. When the Rebbe is giving shiur, it’s easy to space out or get lost along the way. How can we overcome the challenge of spending a whole hour trying to grasp such difficult subject matter? The Midrash Shmuel says the answer is that we need to change our perspective on what it means to hear Torah. It’s not just about an ox goring someone in the public domain. The Creator of the Universe is talking to you! Every word said in shiur is more precious than diamonds. How could we not pay attention? Also, when we are done listening, to not continue thinking about what we’ve heard shows a lack of appreciation for what we’ve learned. This is also something to work on if we want to improve our hearing abilities.
However, other times the problem isn’t that we want to hear but can’t. Sometimes the problem is that we understand what’s being said but don’t want to hear it. Even Adam HaRishon, when Hashem rebuked him for eating from the Tree of KnowIedge, said “"האשה אשר נתתה עמדי הוא נתנה לי מן העץ "The woman that you gave to me, it was she that gave to me from the tree and I ate.” The Sforno points out that instead of taking Hashem’s rebuke as an opportunity to do tshuva, he threw the blame on G-d. Rav Hanoch Leibowitz adds that Adam HaRishon isn’t unique in this tendency. It’s human nature to reject rebuke, rather than hear it and take responsibility for one’s actions. To actually accept rebuke takes a lot of character development, and can only happen if a person truly desires to do Hashem’s will. All we can do is to keep working on ourselves and daven that Hashem help us become people capable of listening and growing even when others seem to criticize us.
Even though listening is a challenge, the benefits of doing so are tremendous. The Midrash Shmos Rabba 27:9 says that when one has a physical illness he goes to a doctor and the doctor cures one problem at a time. Whatever limb is infected must be treated by itself. Spiritual illness is different. Listening just once can give life to your entire being. Yisro, just by hearing the news about the exodus, became a Jew, meriting eternal life for himself and his offspring. So too, we can cure ourselves through our ears. One good hearing can change our lives and lead us to spiritual greatness. Rav Yechezkel Levenstein once said that if someone listened well to even just one of his mussar shmuzim it would change him completely.
There’s a story about the Netziv that shows us how listening just once changed the course of Jewish history. When the Netziv was a bocher, he wasn’t such a good student. He wasn’t so smart and he also wasn’t so diligent in his studies. One day he overheard his father and mother discussing his future. They reasoned that since he wasn’t so successful in his learning, it might be better to send him to a trade school. Shaken by his parents’ words, the Netziv vowed to change and, by applying himself with tremendous determination and perseverance, evolved into a towering Torah giant of world renown. Imagine what the world would have been like if the Netziv never heard his parents’ discussion.
May we all be zoche to use our ears and hear d’var Hashem.