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Saturday, August 30, 2014

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It’s not enough to hear the message

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Rabbi David Rosenthal

In my family, it’s known that I make all the important, far-reaching decisions, and leave the small, trivial ones to my wife. I decide when Israel should bomb Iran, how to solve the Palestinian problem, how to alleviate the economic problems and how to solve world hunger. My wife merely decides where we’re going to live, how to bring up our kids and what to spend our money on.

There’s a passage in the Torah informing us of Jethro’s – Moses’ father-in-law – hearing about the Exodus and coming to the Jewish nation to convert. The Torah emphasizes that Jethro heard about the huge miracles that HaShem had done (“Vayishma”). The inference is that no one else heard about it. That’s equivalent to saying President Harry S. Truman heard about the Hiroshima bombing, but no one else did. A little absurd, no? Events of such cataclysmic proportion are hard to keep under wraps. The whole world knew about the plagues and the splitting of the sea.

So, what is the Torah trying to tell us?

There are actually two meanings behind the word lishmoa (to hear, in Hebrew). First, it’s the physical act of listening, i.e. the sound waves hitting your eardrum and being received by your brain. Second, it means understanding what’s being said, internalizing the meaning behind the words.

The quintessential prayer for the Jew, Shema Yisrael, comes from the same word. It’s not “Hear O Israel” as it’s traditionally translated. Rather it’s “Understand and internalize.”

From the fact that Jethro was the only person to come to join the Jewish People, the Torah is letting us know that the only person who truly heard about the miracles was Jethro. Many were certainly told what happened. But the fact that none of them did anything about it shows that they really didn’t understand the ramifications. They didn’t hear the message.

Now to bring this to a more practical level. Recent world events have left a lot of us shocked and numb – from Hurricane Sandy to the school massacre in Connecticut, there is so much pain and sadness in the world. The question we need to ask ourselves is: Were we changed in any tangible way? Did we take action? Did it cause any introspection or change? We are bombarded by news and information, yet they seems to have less and less effect on us.

Instead of sitting at the Shabbat table discussing solutions to problems not within our control, maybe we should aim our sights a little lower, a little more realistically and ask ourselves how these events can affect us personally, to help us change and grow. Changing ourselves is a little less dramatic than bombing nuclear reactors in Iran, but it’s much harder to achieve because it means pushing ourselves, tangibly changing.

The intimation from Jethro is that we must hear the messages from world events. We must internalize and act upon the things we perceive, and not merely content ourselves with being the backseat driver in world politics.

Rabbi David Rosenthal is the director of outreach and development at the Thornhill Woods Shul and Jewish Centre for Learning and Living in Thornhill, Ont.

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