Rabbi O’s weekly-Yitro (Exodus 18-20)

People Hearing Without Listening
Jethro, minister of Midian, father in law of Moses, heard all that G-d had done for Moses and for Israel, His people-that G-d had taken Israel out of Egypt.
The verse above is followed by others that inform us that Jethro went into the wilderness to meet Moses, whom he had not seen since Moses had left to lead the Jews out of Egypt. What exactly did Jethro hear that made such an impression that he was willing to leave the comfort of his home, convert, and journey into the desert? According to Rashi, he heard about the splitting of the Red Sea and the war with Amalek. These two events, the former being a miracle in which the laws of nature were suspended and the latter was a miracle because a nation without a military, which consisted of released slaves, overcame a mighty army. This was the news of the day but it didn’t seem to affect anyone. Only Yisro actually took action when he heard what had happened.
It seems that the main praise for Yisro is his ability to listen. The human sense of hearing provides the hardware to hear but it is up to the individual to react to that, which is heard. For example, imagine a person who had spent his entire life in a rain forest, away from civilization. One day he decides to venture out and on the way, he notices long lines of steel tracks. He sits down on the tracks and eats his lunch. Suddenly, he hears a loud noise and in the distance, he sees something coming his way. As he sits there still enjoying the scene, the noise gets louder and then there are horn blasts. The man gives a sign of approval for the show he thinks he’s watching. There’s even a man hanging his head out of the window of the train waving his hands frantically and the man waves back. The story does not have a happy ending because the man heard but did not listen and react to the messages he was hearing. If one hears something that can affect his life but does not react to it, then the hearing served no purpose.
Yisro (Jethro) was not the only one to hear about the miraculous events that happened to the Jewish people but he was the only one who reacted to them. It is no coincidence that the six Hebrew words that are the raison d’être of the Jewish people begin with Shema­­-“Listen, Israel, the Lord our G-d is One.” People talk about “Jewish values,” but that is a nebulous and insignificant term because it does not give anything to which the listener can react. The words of the Shema are supposed to be on the lips of a Jew as (s)he dies and that has been the case for thousands of years; we are meant to listen to the idea that G-d exists and bring that reality into our lives. Listening-i.e. paying attention to what we hear-is not a luxury, it is a necessity if one wants to maximize his or her experiences in this life.
The only way two people, or a group of people, can come together is to listen to one another. It would be hard to find two people with more dissimilar backgrounds than Moses and his father in law yet their ability to listen to one another was what allowed them to have the relationship they did and even permit Jethro to change his life and convert. When a bride and groom stand under the chuppah, they too are dissimilar. They were raised in different homes, sometimes different cultures and backgrounds. The only way they can learn to live together successfully in a caring, giving, and loving relationship is if they learn to listen to one another. If a man or woman does not know how to listen-react in a constructive way to what (s)he hears-the relationship will, at best, be unhappy and at worst will end in divorce.
An unfortunate and relatively commonly phrase these days is “I feel like we are roommates; there is no love anymore, just two people sharing the same living space.” How does this happen? How did two people who were madly in love with one another, shared the same aspirations and saw themselves as eternal soulmates end up as roommates? Some might cite a litany or reasons but the day they stopped listening to each other was the day the problems started. Yes, people do change and so do life’s conditions but when two people are committed to listening to one another, they at least stand a chance of working through those changes. In successful marriages, a change of life circumstances can be the cause of each person understanding how difficult the change is for the other person and being sensitive to it. As such, the change actually was a catalyst for a stronger and more loving relationship but this can never happen if one or both spouses have not developed the “listening muscle.”
A book that has had great impact on my ability to listen is You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation, by Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown. She writes the following in her preface:
In the opening of the preface to “That’s Not What I Meant!” I told of a student who said that taking a course I taught at Georgetown University had saved her marriage. Not long ago, the same woman, now a professor, and still married-wrote me a letter. She said that she and her husband had been talking, and somehow the conversation had turned into an argument. In the middle of it he said is exasperation, “Dr. Tannen had better hurry up and write that new book, because this business of men and women talking has got to be the biggest problem around!” In closing this preface, I offer this book to him, and to women and men everywhere who are trying their best to talk to each other.
The frustration of this couple was the frustration we all have in certain conversations; we talk but do not listen. Dr. Tannen’s research and insight gives her readers the tools to learn how to listen. We all hear, but how many of us listen?
At first, even the great Moses did not listen to G-d; he did not want to accept his mission. But Moses did listen. The Jewish people did not want to listen to Moses that they would be free but he eventually won them over. Pharaoh did not listen and subjected himself and his country to ten awful plagues, but even then, he did not listen; after he let the Jews go free he pursued them and suffered more.
Everyone in the region knew about the splitting of the sea and the victory over Amalek, but only Yisro (Jethro) did something about it. He was the only one who listened.
We have all heard many things this week; did we listen or merely hear? We are the ones who choose whether we will be Jethro or the man on the tracks.
(Source: Kol Dodi Dofek, Elul; pp. 68-69)