In this week’s Parashah, it is written, “VaYishma Yitro Kohein Midyan Chotein Moshe Eit Kol Asher Asah Elokim LeMosheh ULeYisrael Amo Ki Hotzi Hashem Et Yisrael MiMitzrayim,“ “And Yitro, the priest of Midyan, the father‑in‑law of Moshe, heard all that God did to Moshe and to Israel, His people – that Hashem took Israel out of Egypt" (Shemot 18:1). It seems a little strange that the Pasuk identifies Yitro as the priest of Midyan. Although it is true that he was the priest of Midyan, that was in his past. At this point in the Torah, he is a completely different person. He is now, according to many Mefarshim, a religious Jew, or at least observant of the Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach, and even has the honor of being Moshe Rabbeinu’s father-in-law. In addition, Halachah forbids reminding a Ba’al Teshuvah about his or her past. We should focus only on how he or she is currently an observant Jew. Why, then, does the Torah remind us of how Yitro was once a priest of Avodah Zarah?
The Alshich HaKadosh explains that the reason the Torah is telling us this is to show us how far Yitro came. Not only was he a resident of Midyan, but he also was a high-ranking priest. He was a professional idol worshiper, and yet, just a short while later he is a servant of God. The Torah is telling us that anybody, even an idol worshiper like Yitro was, can strive for and achieve greatness.
But how can one accomplish this? This is not something that can happen quickly. Yitro was definitely not the only member of Midyan who heard about Keri’at Yam Suf and the war with Amaleik, yet there is no mention of other members of his nation, or of people from other nations, who suddenly became Jewish. What made Yitro so special? How was he alone able to accomplish this?
The Alshich explains that Yitro’s secret to success comes from one word in the Pasuk quoted above: “VaYishma,” “and he heard.” But didn’t other people from other nations also hear about these miracles? The answer is that they did, but Yitro went one step above them. He did not only “hear” about these miracles. He actually took the miracles to heart and saw the truth in them. Yitro was the type of person who was a listener as well as a learner. He wanted the truth. Chazal tell us he tried every Avodah Zarah in the universe, but he was not happy. He was not satisfied because he was honest with himself. That is why he was able to take the miracles that Hashem did for Bnei Yisrael to heart – because he was ready to not just hear about the miracles, but to actually listen to them.
If even a priest of Avodah Zarah can learn to not just hear, but to actually listen, we should too. For instance, when we hear Musar from someone, we should try to not just listen to what he says, but to actually accept his words. With this, we can grow as people and Ovdei Hashem.