One of the striking features of Parshas Yisro is the juxtaposition of the portion about Yisro’s advice to Moses with the Giving of the Torah. Rav Tzadok HaKohen provides an interesting insight to this in the name of his Rebbe1. He begins by discussing the section in which Yisro advises Moshe to change the judicial system and Moses accepts his advice. This seems quite unremarkable but on reflection a tremendous trait of Moses is displayed in his reaction to Yisro’s advice. Yisro may have been a wise man but he was surely far below the level of his great son-in-law and, moreover had no exposure to the wisdom of Torah. Moses could have easily heard out his advice and then politely reject it without really considering its application.
Instead he listened attentively and gave great thought to the advice and ultimately decided to follow it. Reb Tzadok’s Rebbe says that we learn from Moses that a person should listen to the words of an ordinary person. This is an aspect of learning from every man. He then explains the juxtaposition with the Giving of the Torah by saying that this lesson is the introduction to that momentous event because an essential part of learning Torah is the ability to learn it from everyone.
One may ask: the ability to listen to others may be of some benefit in learning Torah, but why should it be of such great significance that it should be the main introductory lesson leading up to the Giving of the Torah? Rav Elya Lopian answers this question. He writes, “There are people who learn constantly and who toil in Torah, but they do not have the ability to listen to others and to connect with their friends in Torah learning, rather, they are totally engrossed in themselves and their own ‘daled amos’ (four amos2). Such people are not only punished severely, but moreover they will not succeed in their learning whatsoever.” He goes on to explains why the lack of the ability to listen hinders one’s learning so severely. “A person is naturally favorably biased towards himself and is blinded to anything that goes against his opinion. He cannot clarify anything accurately if he won’t listen to what anyone else says.3”
It seems that man’s innate inability to hear views that contradict his own can even prevent a student from listening properly to those more learned than himself. There is a particular tendency to want to argue with whatever they say. In consequence, the student can never really understand and absorb what his superior is telling him. In contrast, the ability to wholeheartedly listen and comprehend what others are saying is one of the keys to greatness.
The Alter of Novardok expressed this point when extolling the greatness of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky. “His wisdom and genius is so great and of so much depth and breadth, because when he was young he was always to be found in the presence of the great Rabbis. He never said to them, ‘accept my opinion’, rather he made himself into a ‘vessel’ which would listen and absorb all the opinions and explanations of all the great men there. He absorbed into his very being all the wisdom that he heard, and his mind became purified and elevated by the greatness of many generations that became embedded in his mind.4” We see from the words of the Alter of Novardok that the key to his greatness was his willingness to take in everything that he heard.
While there is a challenge to give our full attention to our Rabbis, it is far more difficult to listen effectively to our peers. Often when we hear that a certain person is about to say over an idea we mentally ‘switch off’ and think about what we want to say next. Apart from showing a lack of common courtesy, such an attitude severely hinders a person’s ability to grow in wisdom.
The ability to accept someone else’s opinion, especially when it contradicts one’s own, is an all too rare quality. Even more difficult than hearing out our peers is effectively listening to those on a lower level of wisdom than ourselves. One learned person was troubled by the Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers5 that tells us that the very definition of a wise man is one who can learn from every man, not just great men - he asked a distinguished Rabbi, that there is surely nothing to learn from those on a far lower level of learning. To this, the Rabbi answered that he had taught Mishna Berurah to beginners who had been learning Torah for about one year. He said that they approached the laws from angles that he had never experienced before which made him seriously rethink many foundation that he had come to accept as sacred.
We learn from Parshas Yisro that listening to others is one of the very foundations of wisdom. May we all gain the ability to genuinely listen to what our teacher, friend, or student is saying and this should help us learn and understand the Torah.
- Quoted in BeShem Amroo, Sefer Shemos, p.281.
- Amos is a measurement used in the times of the Gemara. The phrase, ‘daled amos’ is used to refer to one’s own headspace.
- Lev Eliyahu, Emor, quoted in Mishel Avos, 3rd Chelek, Ch.6, Mishna 6.
- ‘Hameoros Hagedolim’, quoted in Mishel Avos, ibid.
- Avos, 4:1