Make your own free website on

Listening and Hearing in Parashat Yitro

Dvar Torah presented in honor of our son Netanel's Bar Mitzvah


Eldad Ganin and Maureen Mintz

Parashat Yitro contains two stories:
1. Exodus, chapter 18 tells of the reunion of Moshe with his wife, children, and father-in-law, Yitro.
2. Exodus, chapters 19 and 20, tell of the preparation for and actual events of the revelation at Mt. Sinai.

We have always been struck by the incongruity of these two stories. The revelation at Sinai is one of the central stories in our tradition, why was it combined with such a seemingly inconsequential story? Moreover, why is the portion named "Yitro" for the minor part of the story, rather than naming the portion after some aspect of the revelation events?

After listening to Netanel read the parasha about 20 times, we finally realized that a certain Hebrew phrase occurred in both parts of the story. By studying the usage of this phrase we hope to try to answer the questions we posed above.

The repeated phrase is "shma b'koli" [listen to my voice]. Yitro says it to Moshe when lecturing him about good administrative methods (Ex 18:19). God says it to Moshe when repeating the covenantal promise (Ex. 19:5). As we explored this phrase, we realized that various forms of the word "shma" [sometimes meaning 'listen' and other times meaning 'hear'] occurred throughout this portion.

We will try to develop this theme in 7 sections, one for each aliya that Netanel will read.

One of the ways in which we are marking the occasion of Netanel's Bar Mitzvah is by supporting a number of charitable causes. We have tried to relate these causes to some of the ideas presented in the portion. Please see the attached sheet for a full list of names and address of the organizations we are supporting. We hope you will decide to support some of them also.

First Aliya -- Ex. 18:1-12

Parashat Yitro opens with the phrase "Va-ishma Yitro" [and Yitro heard].

The text tells us that Yitro heard "all that God did for Moshe and his nation Israel..." Our commentators fill in the missing information and tell us that he heard about the great victory against the Egyptians at the sea of reeds as well as the recent victory against Amalek. The commentators state that Yitro wanted to share in the joy experienced by his son-in-law and that he decided to journey to the desert and join with the Israelites.

When Yitro meets Moshe, he hears the stories again, this time directly from Moshe (Ex. 18:8). His joy rises to a high pitch and he proclaims a blessing to God and makes a sacrifice to him.

In this aliya Moshe is reunited with his wife and children. We are supporting several organizations that help women and children in distress in the Boston area and in Israel.

Second Aliya -- Ex. 18:13-23

Yitro settles in and observes Moshe's daily life. Like the stereotypical in-law, he immediately begins to lecture Moshe about how everything he is doing is all wrong, "... what you are doing is no good" (Ex. 18:17). Yitro is not one to criticize without offering advice. He continues "shma b'koli", "...listen to my advice and God will be with you ..." (Ex. 18:19).

Yitro then proceeds to lay out the famous hierarchical management system that has been passed down to every large organization ever since. He instructs Moshe to set officers in charge of thousands, officers in charge of hundreds, officers in charge of fifties, and officers in charge of tens.

Yitro's ideas on management seem so simple and common-sensical to us, yet it is obvious that Moshe had never thought of organizing the camp in this way. He had never learned to delegate authority.

In this aliya we see the value of large well-managed organizations. We are supporting charitable clearinghouses that creatively direct funds to causes in the United States and in Israel.

Third Aliya -- Ex. 18:24-27

This short aliya (only 4 verses long) opens in an echo of the first aliya, "Va'ishma Moshe" [And Moshe listened/heard]. In the first Aliya it was Yitro who heard about Moshe's great role in God's victories over Israel's enemies. In the third aliya it is Moshe who is doing the listening -- to Yitro's opinions [literally - his voice].

Moshe follows the advice and the text tells us that the system worked well. Moshe then sends Yitro back to his land. Given that Yitro was such a valuable management consultant, why didn't Moshe keep him around? The commentators suggest several plausible reasons:

* Yitro didn't want to go all the way to Canaan
* Yitro was old and feeble and wanted to die in his own land
* Yitro had converted to Judaism and left to go convert others in his native land

Our theory is that Yitro had basically one suggestion for Moshe. Once he had delivered his suggestion and seen that it was accepted he had no need to stay with the Israelites (he wasn't one of them and did not want/need to join them).

In this aliya we hear of Moshe reorganizing the administrative structure of the community to better serve the people. We are supporting organizations that try to meet basic human needs in innovative ways in the United States and in Israel.

Fourth Aliya -- Ex. 19:1-6

Yitro is gone and the story begins to focus on the coming revelation. Moshe goes up the mountain and God speaks to him of the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. God says "Ve-ata im-shamoa tishme'oo b'koli" [And now if you will listen/hear my voice] (Ex. 19:5) and he proceeds to enumerate some of the wonderful blessings which he will confer upon us if we honor the covenant.

In this aliya God instructs Moshe to "speak thus to the house of Jacob and say to the children of Israel" (Ex. 19:3). Our commentators interpret this apparent redundancy to mean that God directs Moshe to speak to the women before the men. We are supporting organizations that help needy women in both United States and in Israel.

Fifth Aliya -- Ex. 19:7-19

Moshe repeats God's words to the elders of the nation. The nation agrees to follow God's commandments, and Moshe repeats the nation's words back to God.

God then tells Moshe how he will appear to the people -- in a thick cloud so that they will hear him, "ishma ha'am" [the nation will hear].

God instructs Moshe on how to prepare the people for the revelation. Moshe passes on these instructions to the people.

On the day of the revelation there were sounds of of thunder and lightning (Ex. 19:16). The last line of the aliya describes some of the magnitude of the sounds of that day:

"And there was the sound of the shofar, getting stronger and stronger; Moshe spoke with God and God answered with his voice." (Ex. 19:19).

In this aliya we hear God instructing Moshe to order the people to purify themselves. We are supporting organizations that help improve the health of citizens in the United States and Israel.

Sixth Aliya -- Ex. 19:20 - 20:14

Moshe goes up the mountain where God reminds him of the dangers to the people in approaching too near to the mountain. Then God sends Moshe back down to speak the 10 Commandments.

This is the only aliya in this parasha in which the word "shma" [hear/listen] is not present in any form. Some commentators say God's voice could be heard directly stating the 10 Commandments. Some say that God's voice only spoke the first two, and that the rest were spoken by Moshe. There are many other variations, yet all agree that the people heard the 10 Commandments on this day.

To commemorate this unique event in our history we do 2 special things during the public reading of the 10 Commandments:

1. the entire congregation stands for the reading of the 10 Commandments. Just as the Israelites stood in the desert when they originally heard the commandments.

2. the Torah reader chants the 10 Commandments to a special musical tune. This tune is used only for the 10 Commandments. The 10 Commandments are also read on Shavuot, and in a slightly variant version in Parashat Va'Et'chanan.

A 13th century commentary on the Talmud stresses the importance of correctly and accurately reading this portion in public:

Regarding Parashat Yitro, we are taught that a man is not permitted
to read it [in public] until he has practiced it 3 times, as it is
said, (Job 28:27) 'then he saw it, and declared it; he established
it; and searched it out.' After that it is said, it is forbidden for
a man to lean on the bima [while reading]. It [the Torah] was given while
standing and should be read while standing. [Tosafot, Megillah 31b].

Why is all this special attention being paid to the public reading of the 10 Commandments? We believe this is being done to remind us to pay careful attention. We should feel as if we are reenacting the revelatory moment when the people heard the 10 Commandments.

In all the other aliyot of this parasha the text uses some form of "shma" to indicate that someone else heard or listened. In this case, the narrative of the Torah text leaves out the word "shma" because we ourselves are supposed to hear and listen to the 10 Commandments as if we ourselves were standing at Sinai right now.

In this aliya we hear the central commandments of our tradition. In order to properly understand and fulfill these commandments a Jew must be well educated in all aspects of our heritage. We are supporting several organizations that educate Jews in the United States and Israel.

Seventh Aliya -- Ex. 20:15-23

The last aliya opens with a sublime image, "kol ha'am ro'im et ha kolot" [All the nation sees the voices]. This is a powerful image that the commentators highlight as being one of the many unique aspects of that particular time and place. It is as if all 5 senses were merged into one -- the experience was simultaneously seen, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled.

The people ask Moshe to intercede between them and God. They say that they want to hear God's word from Moshe -- "nishma'a" [we will hear them indirectly] rather than directly from God. (Ex. 20:16).

The parasha closes with some laws related to the building of an altar and the proper ways to worship God.

In this aliya we hear laws related to building an altar and worshiping God. In our era we worship in synagogues. We are supporting Temple Israel for the part it plays in our family's worship here in Sharon.


Now to try to answer the original questions -- why is this parasha named "Yitro" after a relatively minor figure in the Torah? Why is Yitro's story inserted immediately before the revelation?

We think that Moshe (and the people) needed to learn a lesson about listening to advice from humans before they were ready to listen to the word of God.

The back and forth hearing/listening that occurs between Moshe and Yitro is to remind us that sensible advice can come from anywhere. Yitro was an idolater. Despite the words of the midrash, the text never tells of him changing his ways. Yet he had sage words of wisdom to offer Moshe.

Yitro says that if Moshe heeds his advice he will be with God. To me this appears to be an act of hubris -- how can we believe that Yitro (the idolater) is telling Moshe (the intimate of God) how to be close to God! Yet as the story unfolds we see that in fact Moshe became a better administrator as a result of listening to Yitro's advice.
Governing the people was made easier by implementing Yitro's suggestions. The new hierarchical scheme enabled the people to resolve the petty annoyances that had been plaguing them since they had left Egypt. As a result of listening to Yitro's advice, both Moshe and the people were better mentally prepared for the revelation to come.

The experience at Sinai was not purely aural -- they saw lightning and smoke, they felt the ground quaking underneath them. Yet the most stirring parts of the revelation at Sinai were the sounds. The sound of God's voice, the sound of the shofar (not a regular ram's horn, but a heavenly shofar), all produced a powerful effect.

The midrash says that the sounds were so loud that the entire nation was killed by them and that God had to revive the people (this helps explain the fear expressed in Ex. 20:16).

Yitro, the idolatrous priest of Midian gave valuable advice to Moshe. This advice brought him closer to God.

If Moshe can benefit from taking advice, all the more so we should keep an open mind and listen to advice from our neighbors and well-meaning friends. If we listen to advice from humans who are fallible, how much more so we should listen to God's words as embodied in the 10 Commandments and the rest of the Torah.

Not everyone is ready to experience revelation. God's voice can be terrifying. Yet if we are able to be like Moshe and the Israelites, and heed the practical advice of a non-Jew in our daily affairs, then surely we can also be like Moshe and the Israelites and uphold the covenant with God.

The sound of revelation frightened the Israelites and would probably frighten most of us today. By presenting the Yitro story first, the Torah is showing us a way to help prepare ourselves for revelation. By naming the portion after Yitro, the Torah is showing us that we need to resolve the mundane problems in our daily lives before we are ready to experience divine revelation.

Back to Eldad's Home Page