This week’s Parashah begins with the phrase “VaYishma Yitro,” “And Yitro heard” (Shemot 18:1). What specifically did Yitro hear? Rashi cites the Gemara (Zevachim 116a), which states that Yitro heard about the splitting of the sea and the war against Amalek. My Rebbe Rav Nissan Alpert zt”l asked: if the entire world heard about the saga of Yetziat Mitzrayim, why does the Torah record that only Yitro heard?
Rav Alpert answered that there are two types of hearing. There are times when “hearing” is solely intellectual, not affected by emotion, while there are other times when hearing is primarily emotional and visceral. For the former, the failure to process and internalize what one “hears” often causes a reaction in which sound seams to pass “through one ear and out the other.” On the other hand, while the people who hear emotionally are initially moved by what they have heard, they often fail to put it into proper perspective. Yitro was the only individual who truly internalized what he heard. Rav Alpert quotes a Midrash that explains that both Yitro and Amalek advised Paroh in Egypt, a civilization renowned for its wisdom. Yitro, after leaving to Midyan, turned to the wisdom of what he understood to be a higher power, idolatry. Yitro, though, soon realized that idolatry was rooted in the human imagination: for example, jealous idols needed appeasement because they lacked mercy and so became vengeful. Yitro then turned to Moshe who tutored him in the ways of Hashem, the One who truly benefits mankind; Hashem creates justice in the world by reciprocating in accordance to man’s deeds. However, it seemed to Yitro that the political situation between Hashem and the Jews showed the opposite. Paroh, an evil ruler, was persecuting the Jews, an innocent nation. Nonetheless, Yitro joined the Jewish nation by understanding that Hashem freed His people from Paroh and ultimately punished the Egyptians.
Rav Alpert explained that someone truly hears when he reexamines his previously held feelings, changes the direction of his life, and accepts the consequences of his new realization.
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 98a) relates a story about Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi who found Eliyahu HaNavi and asked him when Mashiach would come. Eliyahu HaNavi answered, “Go ask him yourself,” and Eliyahu described where Mashiach could be found and how to identify him. When Mashaich was asked when he would come, he answered, “Today.” Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi was very excited, but when Mashiach didn’t come, Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi told Eliyahu that Mashiach was a liar. Eliyahu explained that Rabi Yehoshua heard only what he wanted to hear; if Rabi Yehoshuah had stayed another minute, he would have heard Mashiach say, “Today, if they listen to my voice (Tehillim 95:7).”
We must hear as Yitro did by listening to what is taking place and internalizing events to draw us closer to Hashem. We shouldn’t hear only what we want to hear, as Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi did.
May we become better listeners to realize that Mashiach will come today if only we could all listen to Hashem's voice and fulfill His commandments.