Parshat Yitro: How the Greatest Visionary Learned to Listen
Rabbi Avi Bossewitch learned at Yeshivat Hamivtar from 1996-1998 and serves as the Dean of Education at the Hebrew Academy (RASG) in Miami Beach, FL
The first phase of Moshe’s life is surrounded by sight and vision. This begins when we are first introduced to Moshe, upon his birth, when the Torah utilizes the verb for sight ר.א.ה multiple times. First the Torah informs us that that his mother saw him (Exodus 2:2). The subsequent scene depicts Bat Pharoah seeing him (Exodus 2:5) and seeing him again (Exodus 2:6). All of these sights support the idea that Moshe himself was sight worthy, radiant in some way, as suggested by the expression כִּי טוֹב הוּא, “good to see”. While there are many interpretations as to what this “Tov” is, it is clear that the Torah is informing us that Moshe and his inherent goodness are seen.
In his early life, the few episodes that the Torah shares with us about Moshe are highlighted by Moshe’s own signature sight and vision. Moshe sees the burdens of his fellow Jews, sees an Egyptian striking a fellow Jew, and sees that no one is around (Exodus 2:11-12) . Moshe’s earliest actions are driven by vision and what he sees in the world around him.
Given his keen sense of sight, it is not surprising that the beginning of his rendezvous with Hashem was signaled by Moshe utilizing his distinct vision. In the span of two verses, the root for ר.א.ה appears no less than four times. The Torah informs us that Moshe sees a great sight consisting of the sight of an angel in a flame of fire, and the sight of a bush that was burning but not consumed (Exodus 3:2-3). The Torah is emphasizing again Moshe as a man of unique vision.
However, as strong as Moshe’s vision has been until this point, it will need to be even stronger in order for him to fulfill his true mission. In Hashem’s first conversation with Moshe, Hashem declares that He has seen the affliction of Bnei Yisrael. The verse employs a double usage of the term for seen, רָאֹה רָאִיתִי , “surely I have seen”, to describe G-d’s own vision. The Midrash explains that the usage of the double terminology is meant to contrast the vision that Hashem possesses relative to Moshe. In the words of the Midrash, Hashem says to Moshe, אתה רואה ראייה אחת ואני רואה שתי ראיות, which can be understood as Hashem saying you have singular and limited vision while I, Hashem, have dual vision. It seems that Hashem is critical of Moshe’s perception of Bnei Yisrael, and in particular, their worthiness of being redeemed. This is referencing when Moshe said אכן נודע הדבר which Chazal understood to mean that Moshe accepted that the Jewish nation was not fit to be redeemed . Hashem here at the burning bush is teaching Moshe that his vision, although extraordinary, has been limited when it comes to seeing beneath the surface, and will need to be expanded to fully embrace the charge of leading Bnei Yisrael. Rabbi Soloveitchik Zt”l pointed out that the prophecy of the sneh (bush) that wouldn’t be consumed was meant to convey to Moshe that although Moshe may have felt that the Jewish people were not worthy of being redeemed, just as the bush would not be consumed, the Knesset Yisrael, Jewish nation, would not succumb in Mitzrayim and are intact and ready for redemption.
After the experience at the burning bush, Moshe does become the quintessential human visionary, successfully leading Bnei Yisrael out of Mitzrayim. Although this vision will continue to play a role throughout his life, it is in this week’s Parsha that another vital development occurs. You see, as significant as vision is amongst the five senses, it is not the most important one.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Zt”l explains the following:
In Judaism the supreme religious act in Judaism is to listen… G-d, the sole object of worship, is invisible. He transcends nature. He created the universe and is therefore beyond the universe. He cannot be seen. He reveals Himself only in speech. That is why the keyword of Judaism is Shema. G-d is not something we see, but a voice we hear.
If listening is so central, where do we find Moshe exhibiting this trait? If you look at all of Moshe’s early life and exchanges with Hashem, you will not find it!! We do repeatedly find that Moshe struggles that people do not listen to him, whether it be the elders, Bnei Yisrael, or Pharoah. I believe the Torah’s answer is by providing an exemplar in Moshe’s life who exemplifies what it means to truly listen, hear, internalize, and be moved. That is none other than his father-in-law Yitro. It is Yitro about whom the Torah testifies וַיִּשְׁמַע, it is Yitro that is the grand listener. Yitro is the one upon hearing of the great events of Yetziat Mitzrayim and Kriat Yam Suf, came to join the Jewish nation . I believe it is no coincidence that the first time we encounter the term ש.מ.ע associated with Moshe is when he listens to all that his father-in-law has to teach him . This helps us understand why Yitro occupies a unique place in Jewish History and a central part of this Parsha.
True active listening is also increasingly rare in our world. The world is so noisy both visually and auditorily that we tune out. The endless distractions in a digital world make it hard to truly pay attention with any of our senses. Especially in this landscape, we need to be inspired by the legacies of Moshe and Yitro, who developed extraordinary vision and the ability to hear and act upon what they heard.
As we re-experience the giving of the Torah, may we continue to see, hear, and act upon the revelation at Har Sinai.