Yitro | The Art Of Listening
Updated: Apr 28
There is a lot we can tell from the name of each parsha, which is always taken from a significant word in its first sentence. But how the parshas are divided (and hence the first sentence of each parsha) is no coincidence; we have an oral tradition of how to divide the parshas, which are divided so that the whole cycle is completed in one year, beginning and ending on Simchat Torah. This week‘s parsha is called Yitro, as the parsha begins Vayishma Yitro, “And Yitro heard” – Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard everything that G-d had done for Moshe and the Jewish people, the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea. However this name is unusual given the fact that this week’s parsha has in it the most important event of Jewish history: G-d’s revelation and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, where we heard the Ten Commandments directly from Hashem on the 6th of Sivan, 3324 years ago. This is the most important event in our history, because the moment we received the Torah is what defined us as Jews. In fact, the Gemara learns the laws of conversion from the ceremony and the procedures that took place at Mount Sinai; it was a mass conversion of the entire Jewish people, what defined our mission statement and what we are meant to achieve in this life. It is strange, then, that the parsha which has the Ten Commandments in it and the revelation at Mount Sinai – which is the very foundation of all of Jewish history – is called Yitro.
The parsha begins with Yitro arriving to visit his son-in-law, Moshe, and as he arrives, he starts criticizing Moshe’s system of judging the people. Chapter 18 of the Book of Exodus is all about the interaction between Moshe and his father-in-law, chapter 19 then describes the events leading up to the giving of the Torah and in chapter 20 are the Ten Commandments. Why is the Torah structured in such a way that the parsha begins with the story of Yitro, almost by way of introduction to the giving of the Torah, and then by doing so it actually gave the parsha its name? Surely a more significant name for this parsha could have been found.
Same message, different responses
There is a very profound message in the way that the parsha is structured and this relates to the very first word of the parsha which is Vayishma – Vayishma Yitro, “And Yitro heard.” If you have a look in your Chumash you will see the trop – the musical notes of the cantillation marks – which, based in our oral tradition, have great significance as they tell us how to read the Torah. The trop on the word Vayishma is gershayim, which places emphasis on the word Vayishma, “and he heard.” It is a bit unusual that that word should be emphasised because the simple fact that “he heard” does not seem as significant as what he heard and what action that led him to – joining the Jewish people (and in fact, according to our tradition, he came to convert). Why is there such emphasis specifically on this word, Vayishma?
The answer is that this is to teach us about the art of listening. G-d has given us the Torah but if we are not listening to the message, we may miss it. There are people who miss it: at the end of last week’s parsha we read about a whole nation that missed it – Amalek, the archenemy of the Jewish people. They, too, heard about the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea, but their response was to come and wage war against the Jewish people. Yitro heard about the same miracles and Vayishma – he listened to G-d’s message and he changed his way of life. According to the Midrash, Yitro had tried every form of idolatrous worship that existed at that time. He was a searcher who had studied every religion, and was constantly searching till he came to the conclusion that Judaism was the path of truth.
G-d sends us messages all the time. We can have two responses to exactly the same set of facts – just like Yitro and Amalek, whose reactions to the same event differed radically. For example, take the human brain: the average human brain weighs about 1.5 kilograms, has about 160 billion cells and about 100 billion neurons connecting the cells. The complexities of the brain are inconceivable. One can look at the brain and see the incredible complexities and the miracles of Hashem and respond like Yitro, who saw Hashem’s hand very clearly, or one can respond in the spirit of Amalek, that this has nothing to do with G-d. Some people will be inspired with belief in Hashem; others will claim that somehow billions of cells and neurons working together can be created through random evolution.
Listening is a prerequisite to receiving the Torah
The messages are out there, but we have to respond to them. Perhaps this is why the parsha is called Yitro, after the one who was searching for the truth and listened to it when he finally found it. In order to receive the Torah we have to throw ourselves into it. We have to listen for the truth, be receptive to it and be able to change who we are based on the messages that G-d is sending us. The art of listening is about shifting our positions and seeing the world from a completely different perspective. Yitro exemplified this ability. The starting point to receiving G-d’s Torah is to be a good listener. In fact, often when the Talmud wants to bring a proof of something in the discussion concerning a particular halachah, it says Ta shma, “come and listen.” The most famous verse in the entire Torah is Shema Yisrael, “listen Israel.”
Open-mindedness and humility
Listening is indeed a necessary life skill. It means being ready to change direction in life and being open to new things. Let me give you an example from our parsha: Yitro arrives and one of the first things he does is criticise Moshe, saying that he cannot judge the people singlehandedly. The people are standing around waiting all day for Moshe because there is too much work for him. Yitro tells him he needs to set up a system to devolve the powers so that judging the people will be more manageable and the people will be better looked after.
Put yourself in Moshe Rabbeinu’s shoes: here he is at eighty years of age; he has led the Jewish people through the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea; he has stared down Pharaoh, one of the great tyrants and mighty superpower of that time; he has been leading the people through the great miracle of the manna falling from heaven and he is about to lead the people to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. He has achieved so much and then someone comes and criticises him. How would you react?
When someone criticises us, the natural human reaction is to defend ourselves. We think, well, what right have they to say that? But Moshe didn’t do that. As we know from later on in Parshat Beha’alotcha, Moshe is described as anav mikol adam, “the most humble of all men.” Moshe Rabbeinu heard his father-in-law’s criticism, and he honestly and humbly acknowledged that Yitro had made a good point. Moshe referred the matter to Hashem, Who instructed Moshe to accept Yitro’s advice and set up a whole judicial system with a hierarchy of judges so that the people could have better access to justice.
What is interesting is that the verse says Vayishma Moshe, “and Moses listened.” It’s the same word as by Yitro, Vayishma – “and he listened.” Moshe was prepared to listen and go in a different direction and that required tremendous humility. This episode is recorded just before we receive the Torah to teach us that in order to receive the Torah we have to be humble and ready to listen. We have to be ready to hear that somebody else may have a better idea, to see things from Hashem’s perspective. Sometimes we look at life in a certain way and we have a different opinion. In the Torah, however, Hashem speaks to us and guides us in a different direction. It requires humility to really listen. This is a growth process, and why learning Torah is such an important mitzvah: we are constantly being called upon to shift the way we look at the world. But we can only do so if we are ready to listen with humility.
Being a good listener is the key to learning Torah and receiving G-d’s wisdom for life. The Rambam writes in chapter 4 of his Laws of Repentance 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 gone wrong, we must be receptive to it because that is the basis of all personal growth. Sometimes we get stuck in our ways, we don’t listen; there is a stubborn arrogance and inflexibility which prevents us from being ready to change. But the essence of Torah learning is to be able to listen and to change as a result. This is why the Gemara says Ta shma, “come and listen.” When we are ready to listen, with humility, we are ready to learn.
And so we see that the name Yitro is a very appropriate name for the portion where we read about G-d’s revelation and his giving of the Torah. G-d has given us the Torah but we actually have to receive it. We can only receive it and listen to Hashem’s words of wisdom and guidance if we are prepared to listen to all of those messages with an open mind and a humble spirit. Yitro is a shining examples of this, as is Moshe, the most humble of all men, who was ready to listen and to change even at the age of 80, despite everything he had achieved. Most people by that stage of their lives have all their opinions set. Yet Moshe Rabbeinu was prepared to listen with humility and openness. These two people serve as role models for us on the art of listening and being open to change.