Shabbat Yitro: Listening As Best We Can

Where do you get your inspiration from, when you’re confronted with a challenge? It might be social injustice, relationship upheaval, or just getting up in the morning – and we all need inspiration from outside our own capacity sometimes. Human beings aren’t perfect, and certainly we are not perfectly whole all by ourselves.

Consider Moshe at the beginning of our parashah. He has emerged as the unquestioned leader of the newly-formed group of refugees calling ourselves the Israelites. We are following a hope more than an articulated reality. As we should have expected, in no time at all there were many disagreements and much anger between individuals and groups of us. 

And so our parashat hashavua begins with Moshe sitting and listening to argument after disagreement, expected to decide between each angry pair and rule justly.

It’s at this point that Yitro, Moshe’s father in law, shows up in the narrative; he’s a Midianite priest and, with his professional experience as a leader, sees that Moshe’s fledgling justice system is dysfunctional and bogged down. And so he offers advice:

עַתָּ֞ה שְׁמַ֤ע בְּקֹלִי֙ אִיעָ֣צְךָ֔ וִיהִ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים עִמָּ֑ךְ 

Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you (Ex. 18.19)

We can make jokes about free advice, especially from in-laws, but Moshe is both smart and humble, and he realizes that Yitro is right, and he takes his advice.

What’s the connection to the revelation at Sinai that’s about to happen? Possibly as simple as the court case backlog getting cleared out, so that no one had outstanding grievances distracting them from the opportunity to experience the presence of HaShem. 

Or possibly it was Moshe’s public demonstration of the reality that truth can be found in any mouth, from any human, at any time. Perhaps it is that being able to hear a human voice is a prerequisite to hearing a divine voice. Especially when it comes from an unexpected place – or a place we’ve already ruled out.

And so the sages of the Babylonian Talmud were inspired to teach:

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אַל תְּהִי בָז לְכָל אָדָם, וְאַל תְּהִי מַפְלִיג לְכָל דָּבָר, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ אָדָם שֶׁאֵין לוֹ שָׁעָה וְאֵין לְךָ דָבָר שֶׁאֵין לוֹ מָקוֹם:  

He [Talmudic sage Ben Azzai] used to say: do not despise anyone, and do not discriminate against anything, for there is no one that has not their hour, and there is no thing that has not its place.  (Pirkei Avot 4.3)

On this Erev Shabbat when we are invited to hear the most important words of the Torah, the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Utterances of Sinai, it’s useful to remember the traditional Jewish teaching that we each hear according to our ability. May we do our best to remove our own prejudices about where we need to listen. May we hear what we need to hear to be inspired to achieve justice and peace in our own lives by seeking it for others.

Shabbat Shalom


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