Yitro 5779 – Do We Really Listen?

By: Elisa Miller

While doing some research for a session on listening skills, I ran across a quote from Steven Covey that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” I started to listen more carefully to conversations around me and realized that this had become unfortunately true in many situations. It made me sad, as part of my job is to listen to what my audience has to say… and that intense listening is one of the things that helps me be successful in my role in user experience research.

What I didn’t expect to find in my exploration of Parasha Yitro was the fact that the Chief Rabbi Eli Shebson identifies three different terms for listening in the Torah:

“The first appears at the very beginning of Parashat Yitro, “Vayishma Yitro – Yitro listened.” When we use the term ‘Shomeya’ it means that we take what we hear very seriously – what we hear becomes a call for action.”

Yitro really heard the details of the Exodus and all of the associated miracles. Because of this, he brought Moses’ wife and children to the wilderness where the Israelites had gathered, to see how they were faring.

At this point in the Torah, Yitro asks Moses to listen, in a say to take an action:

“What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. Listen now to me and I will give you advice, and may God be with you… Select capable men from all the people-men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain-and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and so too all these people will reach their place in peace.” (Exodus 18:17-23)

And Moses listened, and his action was to delegate and share the burden of leadership.

According to Rabbi Shebson, The second term is ‘Leha’azin’ – to hear. Sometimes a word can go into one ear and out through the other and that is what happens with ‘Maazin’. That is ‘hearing. This is what Steven Covey was talking about and he added: “The collective monologue is everyone talking and no one listening. This is what we complain about when we believe we are not being heard.”

“But there is a third, unexpected term,” adds Rabbi Shebson, “which is the most powerful form of listening. It comes immediately after the giving of the Ten Commandments. When in this week’s Parsha, the Torah tells us, “V’Chol Ha’am Ro’im Et Hakolot – and the entire nation saw the sounds.” Here we have a combination of senses, something quite extraordinary. Perhaps even close to supernatural, in which we were able to internalize the messages that reached us from G-d with our entire beings.”

According to Rabbi Marc D. Angel, “The Revelation at Mount Sinai was a national experience for all the people of Israel—but it also was very personal. Each Israelite heard the same words—but in different ways!

“The Midrash teaches (Shemot Rabba 29:1) that God spoke “bekoho shel kol ehad ve-ehad,” according to the individual abilities of each listener. The universal message of Torah was made direct and personal. The miracle at Mount Sinai was not only the Revelation of God to the nation of Israel, but the individualized Revelation to each and every Israelite man, woman and child.

“The message of this rabbinic teaching goes further. It does not merely refer to the receptivity and ability of Israelites at the moment of Revelation at Mount Sinai. It also recognizes that each individual’s koah—strength of understanding—is not stagnant. As we grow, deepen our knowledge, expand our sensitivities and open our minds and hearts—our koah evolves. In a sense, we receive the Revelation anew at each stage in life—actually, every day and every moment of life. This is the wonder and glory of Torah: it speaks to us directly and personally throughout our lives.”

Rabbi Shebson closes, “So powerful was that experience at Mount Sinai, that we believe all of our souls were there. We carry that experience with us even today and it gives us the imperative to carry out the expectations of that covenantal relationship established at Sinai.

So if ‘listening’ is a call for action, ‘Kal Vachomer’ – how much more so, when one sees the voices? As a result, all that transpired at Mount Sinai continues to be a very powerful and essential call to us through all ages, to live our lives according to the will of Hashem.

It is good when people are able to say ‘I hear what you have said’. It is even better when they’re able to say ‘I have listened’. But the best of all is when somebody can tell you ‘I feel what you said.”

I’d like to share a couple more quotes:

“So when you are listening to somebody completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it – Jiddu Krishnamurti

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.

–Karl Menninger, American Psychologist.

Thanks so much for listening.

Shabbat Shalom.