The Art of Listening

February 12, 2020

11 min read


Yitro (Exodus 18-20 )

Attuning our ears to hear the reverberations of Sinai.

"Moses' father-in-law Jethro, sheik of Midian, heard about all that God had done for Moses and His people Israel when He brought Israel out of Egypt." (Exodus 18:1)

What did Jethro hear about that made him come? The Splitting of the Sea and the war with Amalek (Rashi).

Considering that the giving of the Torah is the foundation of the entire world – both spiritual and physical – would it not have been proper for the Sages to designate a full Torah portion to this occurrence alone? Why was the episode with Jethro not included in Parshas Beshalach? After all, the Splitting of the Sea and the war with Amalek that Jethro heard about are both contained in that portion.

Even more difficult to understand is Rashi's opinion that Jethro in fact did not join the Jewish people until after the giving of the Torah. Why, then, did the Torah preface the giving of the Torah with Jethro's arrival?

"And Jethro heard." (Exodus 18:1)

The Zohar asks: "Did only Jethro hear and the whole world did not hear?! Is it not written, 'the nations heard and shuddered'? The answer is that the whole world heard and were not humbled, while Jethro heard and was humbled and was drawn close to fear God."

Many hear, but few really take to heart what they hear. As the Midrash (Tanchuma Yitro 2) puts it, "There are those who hear and lose, and those who hear and profit." Hearing and listening properly are the key to one's success in this world. The Midrash (Shmot Rabbah 27:9) offers the following allegory on the verse, "Incline your ear and come to Me; hear and your soul shall live" (Isaiah 55:3):

So precious are the Jewish people to God that He entices them. He said to them, "If one falls from a roof and his whole body is injured, and the doctor visits him and puts a bandage on his head, arms and legs, and all his body, he becomes totally enveloped in bandages. I am not like that. Man has 248 organs and one of them is the ear. If the whole body is sullied with sin, but the ear hears and listens, then the whole body receives life.

Before the Torah tells us, "And God spoke," we must first learn what it means to listen. Unless there is an ear to hear, even the most powerful message from the mouth of God Himself is lost. For that reason, "Jethro heard," precedes the giving of the Torah. Let us now investigate what proper hearing entails.

The Mechilta relates that prior to the giving of the Torah, the kings of the nations heard the thunderous sounds and gathered together to seek advice from Bilaam. They were concerned that God was bringing another cataclysm – if not of water, then perhaps of fire – to destroy the world. Bilaam quieted their fears by telling them that God was giving His people the Torah. The kings replied, "God should bless his people with peace."

Jethro heard the same thunderous noises and came to join the Jewish people and accept the Torah personally. In fact, the Mechilta relates, Jethro was the first person to exclaim, "Baruch Hashem!"

The word baruch (blessed) connotes increase and strengthening. Moses and the Jews were so deeply inspired by the Exodus and the Splitting of the Sea that they could not imagine the effect wearing off or dissipating. Although they profusely praised and thanked God, they did not see the need to use the word "baruch"; they felt no need to ask God to strengthen the effect of these miracles.

Jethro, however, realized that the effect of miracles can soon be dissipated if those effects are not somehow incorporated into one's actions. He realized Amalek also heard of the Splitting of the Sea, yet the impression quickly wore off and Amalek attacked the Jews. Therefore Jethro appreciated the necessity to address God with a bracha, an entreaty to intensify and increase the effect of the miracles already performed.

In contrast to Jethro, the kings of the nations were concerned personally only when they thought that the awesome sounds were harbingers of their doom. Once they were told that the sounds were the sounds of Torah, they immediately distanced themselves. They directed God's blessings to His people, but did not act as if they were personally implicated. There was nothing they felt that they could gain from these sounds. Only Jethro took these sounds as a personal message and directed his blessings to God so that he might personally benefit from Torah.

"The entire nation saw the sounds." (Exodus 20:15)

Hearing alone is indiscriminate; sound is received by the ear from all directions without the need to focus or turn. Vision, on the other hand, is dependent on opening one's eyes and focusing on that which one wants to see. God's words had to be heard with the same intense focus employed in sight. The Israelites physically saw the sounds in order to aid their ability to listen properly.

Many sounds and sights reach our ears and eyes, but only one with the capacity to really focus can absorb their message. The Gemara relates that the turning point in the life of Rabbi Akiva was when he witnessed the erosion of a stone by water. Many observed the same thing, but only he derived the message: if water can erode stone, then Torah can change the heart. The whole world summons one with an attuned and attentive ear to the service of God:

"The heavens declare the glory of God." (Psalms 19:2)

Look at the sky, listen to the ocean and acquire awe of God:

"My heart says to me in your name, 'Seek out my face.'" (Psalms 27:8)

If someone begins the Shema by repeating the word "Shema" twice, we silence him out of a concern that he seems to be addressing two deities (Talmud – Brachot 33b). This is difficult to understand, for Shema refers to the one who is listening and not to God. How then does it imply two deities? The answer is that the entire creation cries out the unity of God. There is no multiplicity, only the one, unified voice of God that calls out to man from all quarters. Any double-hearing smacks of idolatry and duality.

Everyday a voice emanates from Mount Chorev (Sinai) and declares, "Woe to them, to the people, because of their insult to the Torah" (Avos 6:2). The commentaries explain that the giving of the Torah did not stop, as it says, "A great sound that did not cease" (Deut. 5:19). One with an attuned ear hears the voice of God giving the Torah continually, as the basis of all of creation. When the voice is not heard, then the voice goes out proclaiming the disgrace to Torah.

The Mechilita (see also Talmud – Kiddushin 22b) describes the piercing of the earlobe of the Jewish servant as a punishment for his failure to hear and heed the ongoing commandment, "Do not steal." It might be asked, however, why we pierce the earlobe, a mere piece of cartilage, and not the eardrum which failed to hear.

The Sages tell us that the outer ear serves as a funnel to collect the sound waves and direct them to the inner ear. The problem of the servant was not that he did not hear on Sinai that we are all to subjugate ourselves to God alone. But he failed to hear the command as if it were directed to him and him alone. His outer ear failed to funnel those words to him, and thus bears the blemish. He heard God's voice, but did not experience it as if God was speaking to him.

"Cain spoke with his brother Abel, and when they were in the field, Cain arose and smote Abel, his brother." (Genesis 4:8)

Many Midrashim discuss what exactly Cain said to Abel. Ibn Ezra notes that according to the simple understanding of the verse, Cain repeated to Abel the admonition he had just heard from God:

"If you will improve, then you will be forgiven, and if not, the sin crouches by the entrance, and it desires you, but you can dominate it." (Genesis 4:7)

How can these words of rebuke to Abel have led to murder? They should have prevented the murder!

Like most people, Cain heard the rebuke as directed at everybody but him. Since Abel was the only person around, he assumed it was intended for him. So Cain "said over" the rebuke to Abel rather than mulling over its implications for him. Not only did it fail to prevent the murder, but by suggesting to Cain that Abel was in need of rebuke, it may have even aroused his animosity.

When I was younger and more naive, I assumed that my Shabbos sermon would be an effective medium to reach members of my congregation in need of reproof. Inevitably, the targeted individual(s) would approach me after davening and tell me, "Rabbi, you really gave it to them. I hope the ones who needed to hear got the message." "Obviously," I thought to myself, "they did not."

Rebuke is only effective if one takes it personally. Even if one hears it directly from God Himself, as Cain did, unless one recognizes that it is directed at him, the rebuke is useless.

A truly sensitive person will always hear any reproof as directed at him or her. I once addressed a group of 350 complete strangers in Johannesburg and spoke about modesty and the problems of certain forms of dress. After the lecture, I received the following note:

Dear Rabbi Leff,
I want to apologize for the manner in which I dressed for the lecture. I don't usually wear this type of clothing, but in my rush to the lecture, I grabbed what was available. I know you were referring to me, and I promise not to repeat this error.

I was astounded that there could be a soul so pure, to hear reproof directed to an audience of strangers as personal rebuke.

The Sages attribute another function to the earlobe. The Talmud (Kesubos 5b) comments that earlobes are soft and flexible, so that if one is in a situation where someone is speaking Loshon Hara (negative speech), he can bend his earlobe in as an earplug to avoid listening to the prohibited speech.

Since the Sages also say that the fingers are tapered to serve the same function of plugging up the ears to avoid hearing Loshon Hara, one wonders why both earlobes and tapered fingers are needed for the same function. Furthermore, why shouldn't one just walk away and in that way avoid listening to Loshon Hara?

There are in fact three different types of speakers of Loshon Hara, and each one requires a different response. There are those who speak Loshon Hara constantly, the professional gossips. One should have nothing to do with such people, and walking in the other direction when one sees them coming is indeed the preferred response.

The second type of Loshon Hara is that spoken by a basically good person, who from time to time slips into the trap of gossiping. He need not be avoided entirely. The preferred response is simply to prevent oneself from hearing the Loshon Hara. Tapered fingers distance the Loshon Hara but not the speaker.

There is yet a third type of Loshon Hara. Someone is asked concerning the honesty of a certain individual by someone else who is contemplating entering into a business relationship with him. Jewish law is clear that if the individual being questioned knows the man to be dishonest, he must respond and relate exactly what he knows. (Of course, he must not exaggerate, or add information that was not solicited, or speak out of personal animus.) If a third party is present, who does not need to know this information, it is Loshon Hara with respect to him, and he must not listen. Putting his fingers in his ears would seem to imply that the information is intrinsically Loshon Hara and might wrongly discourage the one relating the information from continuing. By turning his earlobe, however, he signifies that this information is only Loshon Hara with respect to being funneled into his ears.

As we once again experience the giving of the Torah, with the reading of the Parshat Yitro, let us learn from Jethro to attune our ears to hear the uninterrupted voice of God, directed personally to each and every one of us, from every quarter of creation.

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