Did You Hear?
By Rabbi Yehudah Prero
Most of us, by this point in the High Holiday season, have heard at least one
speech or lecture in which we have be exhorted to repent and improve our
performance of Mitzvos. We have head about specific problems that may
challenge us as individuals, or about indiscretions that unfortunately are
widespread and communal in nature. We have been offered suggestions on what
to change and how to change. This coming Shabbos, the Shabbos between Rosh
HaShana and Yom Kippur, there is a tradition that the rabbis of each
synagogue or community deliver such speeches, to arouse within us the desire
According to Rav Sholom Schvadron zt"l, we do not necessarily utilize to the
fullest the power of hearing which has been granted us by G-d. The Torah
tells us that "When Yisro, the priest of Midian, Moshe's father-in-law,
heard of all that Hashem had done for Moshe, and for Israel His people, and
that Hashem had brought Israel out of Egypt; ... And Yisro, Moshe's
father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moshe into the wilderness,
where he encamped at the mount of G-d." About what event in particular did
Yisro hear? There are three differing opinions: He heard about the victory of
the nation of Israel over the nation Amalek, who warred with the nation of
Israel in an unprovoked attack; He heard about the giving of the Torah; He
heard about the splitting of the Red Sea. Regardless the exact event, Yisro,
by hearing about the event, was not unique. The entire world heard about all
three of these events. Yisro was not alone. So why does the Torah tell us
that Yisro heard about what Hashem did? The later part of the verse is the
answer: "And Yisro came."
Yisro heard about "all that Hashem had done for Moshe and for Israel His
people." Yisro did not merely hear with his ears; he heard with his heart. He
internalized what he was hearing. He understood its implications and
ramifications. By hearing, he understood that Hashem is the One and Only. The
Medrash on this portion tells us "he felt remorse and repented. He said,
"The only thing for me to do is to join the G-d of Israel." Yisro heard and
understood what he was hearing. And most importantly, he acted on what he
heard. He repented and came to join the nation of Israel.
Rav Schvadron explains the danger of faulty hearing by means of a parable. A
young man lived his entire life in the countryside. He grew up in a home
located nowhere near any urban centers. He was used to his very simple way of
life, with no knowledge of the many modern conveniences and advances in
technology of which the "city people" availed themselves. The time finally
came when he had to travel to the big city. Nearing the city, he came upon a
road. However, this was unlike that he had ever seen. He noticed something
unusual in the middle of the path. There were iron bars with wooden planks
running between them, running as far as the eyes could see in both
directions. He was enthralled with these shiny iron bars and decided to
inspect them closely. As he was looking at this discovery, he heard a sound
in the distance, unlike that which he had ever heard. He remained on the
unusual "road" and just stared at the object that was making the fascinating
whistling sound. This object was coming closer, and with the rapid approach,
the noise was occurring with a much greater frequency and with greater
This young man had no idea he was standing on train tracks. He had no idea
that the sound he heard was the whistle of the train. He had no idea that the
train engineer was sounding the whistle to warn him that his life was in
peril if he remained standing on the tracks. The young man heard, but he did
not understand what he was hearing. He did not act on what he was hearing.
And because this was true, he unwittingly placed himself in mortal danger.
We say in the High Holiday prayers that "Repentance, prayer and charity can
remove from upon us the evil decree." Many have the idea that during this
time of the year, when our fate is in the balance, we should focus on
increased dedication to G-d and increased performance of Mitzvos. While this
is needed and encouraged, this is not repentance. Increased prayer and
charity (as well as other mitzvos) are separate and apart from repentance, as
the passage implies. To repent, practically speaking, means to return to G-d,
to abandon one's improper actions and become a new person. Just doing new
actions does not suffice. We find in many writings that the term "Chozer,"
"one who returns" is used in connection with repentance. We have to return to
G-d, by turning ourselves around and traveling on the path that He has set
before us, not the path that our whims and desires brought us to.
We pray every day asking G-d for forgiveness. We pray that G-d help us
repent. We hear the words of our Rabbis and teachers about penitence. But do
we really hear what is being said? Do we really take the words to heart? We
learn from Yisro that to truly hear, one has to act. We have to repent. If we
don't, we are staring down a rapidly approaching train, which can only lead
to consequences that we do not want to contemplate.
With wishes for a G'mar Chasima Tovah.
Check out all of the posts on Elul and Rosh HaShana. Head over to
http://www.torah.org/learning/yomtov/ to access the YomTov Page. Then click on the icon for the holiday of your choice.
For questions, comments, and topic requests, please write to Rabbi Yehudah Prero.