Hearing is remarkable. Philosopher Casper Henderson notes that hearing is the first of our senses to develop in the womb, so that at half its full term size, the acoustic nerves of a foetus are mature enough to discern ‘low sounds’ and by two-thirds of development to hear ‘pretty much the full range of its mother’s voice’. Our sensitivity to sound enables us to communicate by distinguishing the multiple noises we use to talk. Our ability to hear enables us to interact with the world around us, as well as to appreciate music, both natural and created by humans. However it is widely acknowledged that we can listen without hearing. Poet John Koeing coined the term ‘anecdoche’ to mean a situation where ‘everyone is talking but nobody is listening’ and in Parashat Yitro, Rashi picks up on the phrase in 19:5 where there is a doubling of the verb to listen, ‘im shamo’a tishmaoo’ – ‘if to listen you will listen’, explaining that it is the action of listening which is itself challenging.
Taste and touch are visceral senses but, with a few exceptions, most of us make sense of the world through sounds. In fact, when we can’t comprehend what we are seeing, it is the audible explanations which help us to understand the world. Rabbi Goldfarb quotes Rashi’s commentary that ‘The eyes are the ‘spies’ of the body, they act as its agents for sinning – the eyes see, the heart desires’. But ears are different; we think of ears as the instruments of learning. While the connection of the eyes is to desire, the connection of the ears is to understand. In Yitro, the Torah teaches that to be ‘treasured’ by God we need to listen actively; to listen and then follow through on what we hear. Furthermore, if we really listen to hear, if we listen actively, then we will be ‘ateret cohanim’ – ‘a kingdom of priests’, and a holy nation. God treasures thoughtful, active listening and holiness involves hearing.
In fact the parasha begins with careful listening, hearing more than just the words: ‘vayishma Yitro… kol-asher asah Elohim’ – ‘and Yitro heard… all that God has done’ (18:1). Whilst some commentators argue about whether this takes place before or after the revelation of Torah on Sinai, it is clear that when Yitro hears about God’s kindness to the people, he chooses to believe in the God of Moses and to join the Israelites. Later, when Yitro sees all that Moses does for the people, he says to him (18:19), ‘listen to my voice, I will advise you and God will be with you.’ Moses listens, and then acts, to put in place a system for judging the people, enabling each of them to be heard.Social commentator Stephen Covey wrote that ‘People don’t listen to understand. They listen to reply. The collective monologue is everyone talking and no one listening’. Both Moshe and Yitro exemplify active listening, ensuring they hear in order to understand and then act on what they have heard. Listening to understand, to really hear what is going on, is an act of holiness. Hearing is believing.