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Parashat Yitro

February 3, 2010

By Hayley Mica Siegel

To say that I come from a family of talkers is an understatement. At an early age, I was taught “It’s perfectly fine to interrupt someone else if you know his/her answer or what he/she is about to say” by my elders and witnessed irsthand that this statement was upheld to the highest degree! Dinnertime could nicely be described as a six-ring circus (there were five members of my family and a bearded collie named Bailey). There was an “unspoken” challenge laid in front of every member of my household: to get as many words or opinions interjected into the dinner conversation as possible. And with three boisterous children, two engaged parents, and a street savvy dog, it’s fair to say that people in the lobby of my building could have easily heard every idea, bark, or interjection. Even at family functions (or other people’s family functions!), we never met a microphone we didn’t like.

Joking aside, as I read this week’s parashah, Yitro, I was humbled by the impact of Yitro’s (Moses’ father-in-law) listening to Moses during a crucial turning point in the tribe’s development and remembered how easy it is to neglect the important, but often challenging action of listening to those in our midst.

After years of being controlled by their taskmasters in Egypt, the Israelites attempt to transition into a life of freedom and seek to bring structure and order to their once fragmented tribe. Not surprisingly, they turn to Moses, the man who spearheaded their exodus from Egypt, for resolution of all of their legal and economic grievances. As it describes in our parashah, Moses becomes their primary judge, and he toils tirelessly from “morning until night” (Ex. 18:13) to help his brethren sort out their
myriad claims.

Yitro observes Moses begin to burn out from working with the never-ending line of people which come before him day in and day out. Yitro engages Moses who explains that the people have become completely dependent upon his decisions. After allowing Moses to unburden himself, Yitro beckons Moses to “listen to his voice” (v’ata sh’ma b’koli – Ex. 18:19) to sort out this situation. To preserve his well-being as well as the welfare of the tribe, Yitro advises Moses to select a group of able-bodied, capable and upstanding men and then empower them to judge the minor incidents. That way, Moses will have the energy and resolve to tackle the more serious cases. Not surprisingly, Moses immediately implements Yitro’s sound strategy (vayishma Moshe – Ex. 18:24) and selects a group of righteous men from the Israelites to serve within the tribe’s first judicial system.

Yitro’s candid conversation with Moses provides us with an excellent model of good listening. Even though Yitro has likely formed judgments by watching Moses in action, he allows Moses to share his perspective before weighing in with advice. Yitro’s engagement prompts Moses to completely open up about his pressing stresses and judicial burdens, and no detail is left out as he describes his story. Throughout this time, Yitro is quiet. There is no cross talking between the two men, and he doesn’t interrupt Moses once. Only once Moses has finished does Yitro share his practical and realistic leadership strategies with Moses. Yitro’s listening to Moses and thoughtful guidance instill confidence in Moses to embark on a new path.

Parashat Yitro reminds all of us to think long and hard about how the simple act of genuine, active listening has the power to pave the way for positive, proactive change in the world. Perhaps this is best put by Dr. Michael Nichols in his book, The Lost Art of Listening, “The need to be known, to have our experience understood and accepted by someone who listens, is food and drink to the human heart.”

During this Shabbat, may we make the concerted effort to listen to a loved one, friend, or even a stranger, in order that we may create a meaningful kesher (connection) with that individual and instill a deeper sense of shleimut (wholeness) within his/her heart and soul.

Hayley Mica Siegel is a fourth-year rabbinical student at The Academy for Jewish Religion and the rabbinic intern at 92YTribeca.