The sidra begins with the words “vayishma Yitro – and Jethro heard” – but we don’t know what exactly it was that Jethro heard and understood –the information about what had happened in Egypt, the splitting of the sea and the war against Amalek didn’t have much effect on others who knew of it, so why does only Jethro respond in this way? There must be something else in the text....Either Jethro heard something more than we are told, or else he heard in a way that moved him powerfully and changed him.
Jethro seemed to hear in a particular way, the kind of hearing that happens when someone is moved to re-examine feelings, and so change the direction of their life. This is more than active listening; it requires openness to the other, readiness to be affected by what one hears.
Hearing is a theme in this sidra. For of course we also have the people hearing God speaking, as the foundational event of Judaism, the giving of Torah at Sinai, happens in the hearing of the people at the foot of the mountain. But what does it mean to hear the voice of God? And how can we possibly know when we have heard it, let alone allow ourselves to be changed by it?
After three days of preparation, the people are gathered at the foot of the mountain, the summit of which seems to be hidden in a storm of lightening, fire and smoke, and there is thunder and what appears to be the sound of the shofar, though it is never clear who is blowing the shofar. The whole mountain is trembling violently and Moses begins to talk to God and God answers: “And when the voice – Kol - of the horn grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a Kol -voice. It isn’t really clear what it is that people hear when God answers – the word Kol can mean a voice, a sound, even a thunderclap. The ambiguity is important, for each person could claim to have heard God, and yet each may have heard something quite different from others. Rabbi Art Green suggests that what Moses heard was the thunder, just as everyone else did, but that within it he was able to hear the voice of God, even though others could not. Moses’ special ability was that he could translate the voice of God into the words we have– the Asseret haDibrot, the Ten Commandments.
The Talmud (Berachot 45a) records an amazing discussion: “From where do we know that, in the ancient practice of reading the Torah, when an interpreter would translate the Hebrew words of the Torah reader into Aramaic, the interpreter was not allowed to raise his voice above the level of the reader? From the verse: “Moses spoke, and God answered him in a voice.” What does the text mean when it says “in a voice?” asks the Talmud “It means The voice of Moses,” which is understood by them as meaning that God’s voice was at the same volume as Moses’ voice. But it is possible to read this at face value- as Art Green does – So when the Talmud says “God spoke in the voice of Moses” we could understand that God actually did speak in the voice of Moses” That is, at the moment of revelation, the voice of God and the voice of Moses were identical, indistinguishable. The human and divine voice was apparently the same – and this is why Moses was able to discern within the thunder the voice of God – it was his own voice he could hear.
There is a great deal of rabbinic storytelling around the events at Sinai. One of the most important is that it wasn’t only the Israelites at the foot of the mountain who heard the voice of God. The Midrash teaches that the voice went out to all the seventy nations of the world, each in its own language (Shabbat 88b), and another Midrash tells us that every person heard the voice of God differently, each in their own head (Shemot Rabbah 5.9). These are two different Midrashim, with quite different understandings from the text of what was actually heard. And this is diversity of interpretation is important to us. The Talmud, recording the debates of generations of rabbis about what text means, and what God’s will might be, shows us that disagreement and creative understanding are all part of the process of trying to discern what might be the truth of God’s words to us. The only agreement in this diverse process is that there is indeed a truth, but it is not clear what that truth might necessarily be. In the words of Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, “The Midrash can present on one page many contradictory interpretations of any given biblical verse. Certainly our sages realized that if one Midrash gives one version of events and a second Midrash gives a contradictory version, they can’t both be true at the level of what physically happened. However, they understood that each Midrash taught us something they saw as true about the world. What does this teach us about truth and legitimate disagreement? Judaism does not teach that everything is relative. The message of the Parasha is that there is ultimate truth. However, we don't always have a common understanding of what that truth is.
How do we negotiate this? What are the ground rules and red lines when we all passionately believe we are right? Civil debate becomes even more challenging when we are not merely talking about theoretical issues, but issues that impact upon our most deeply held moral values.” In other words, debate is all the more difficult for us when we are required to really hear the other side, to be prepared to give up some of the things that we hold dearly to ourselves, in order to serve the higher principle of making the world a better and more just place for all.
How do we hear the voice of God in our world? How can we trust what we think we hear? How do we choose between what we want to hear and what is authentically the voice? Firstly, like Jethro, we must listen completely, hear truly what is said and be open to it being something that might challenge what up till now we have held true and firm. And, like Moses, we must let the voice of God sound through our own voices, not that we may think we can speak for God but that we allow God to speak through us.
God is not us, and we are not God, but we must experience God with our own selves, our own experiences, our own way of understanding. And listening to the voice of God, true listening, should inform our choices and challenge our assumptions and some of our closely held attitudes. God is calling us to be something more than we are, to be more the people we should be. That is the voice we must listen to, and give others the right to hear the voice that they also hear – for the one thing our tradition is quite clear about is that each will hear the voice of God differently, but each of us is quite capable of hearing the voice of God.
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild 2012