Texts and beliefs By Marc Shoffren 31st Jan 2019

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.

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