On this Shabbat, during the reading of the Torah, Jews throughout the world will rise from their seats and witness a most dramatic scene – the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. This theophany, a scene in which God appears to human beings, forms one of the most memorable episodes in the entire Torah. And yet, the parasha from which we read is called Yitro, the Hebrew name of Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, a seemingly strange selection for such a monumental reading. Who was Jethro and why was he so important?
Although we are first introduced to Jethro in the opening chapters of Exodus, the significance of his presence is not felt until the Israelites have left the land of Egypt. Following the Israelites’ journey through the Sea of Reeds and a series of random grumblings, Moses appears overtired, overworked and overburdened. After witnessing his son-in-law’s conduct, and hearing from Moses directly that he spends every waking hour addressing the people’s complaints, Jethro instructs Moses to seek out magistrates who will serve as judges over the people. These magistrates will create a system for handling minor disputes, leaving Moses to address the larger issues.
Although Jethro offers a solution for Moses’ exhaustion, it is clear that he cares about Moses’ well-being, and that he listens to Moses’ concerns. Many times, the act of listening, in addition to offering empathy and support, is the best assistance that we can provide another person in a time of difficulty. As Dr. Michael Nichols writes in his work, The Lost Art of Listening,
“The obligation to listen can be experienced as a burden, and we all sometimes feel it that way. But it is quite a different thing to be moved by a strong sense that the people in our lives are eminently worth listening to, a sense of their dignity and value. One thing we can all ad a little more of is understanding— respect, compassion, and fairness, the fundamental values conveyed by listening.”
And to accomplish such a goal, all we need to do is to open our ears and offer our hearts.
In all likelihood, Jethro as a character had nothing to do with the naming of this week’s parasha. Books of the Torah were divided into parashiot during the Middle Ages, around the same time that Scripture was rendered with chapters and verses, and only six parashiot out of fifty-four are named for a biblical character. Most times, the name of a parasha is simply one of its first words. How appropriate it is then that Parashat Yitro opens with the words Vayishma Yitro, “And Jethro listened.” May we come to recognize that we are responsible for listening to one another, and understand that in many circumstances, when a friend or a loved one seems to need a helping hand, what they need most is for us to sit with them and lend an ear.
Yitro is one of six parashiot named for a character in the Bible. Can you name the other five?