Listen to Your Messages

Vayishma Yisro (Shemos 18:1)

After the miracles that Hashem performed for the Jewish people at the Red Sea and in the battle against Amalek, Yisro came to join them and convert. However, the Torah seems to stress that there was something unique about Yisro hearing about these miracles. What was so significant about Yisro’s hearing?

The Alshich Hakadosh explains that while the entire world heard about the miracles and was filled with fear of the Jews, only Yisro did something about it: he came to convert. Proper hearing doesn’t merely connote the ability to process sound waves. It requires a deeper understanding of the message being conveyed.

Harav Shalom Schwadron compares this to two people walking down the train tracks. When the conductor of an oncoming train sees them, he sounds a shrill warning whistle. Both men hear the whistle, but one is a simple farmer who has never seen a train. He continues walking while enjoying the view and the sounds of the whistle, while the other person understands the warning being conveyed and immediately flees from the oncoming danger.

While both men physically “heard” the sound of the whistle, only the latter properly understood the message. Similarly, although the nations of the world heard about Hashem’s miracles, the information failed to change them. Only Yisro internalized the message, understanding what was required of him and acting accordingly.

An inspiring story illustrates this point. During World War I, many of the Jews of war-torn Poland took refuge in Austria. One year on Shabbos Chanukah, Harav Moshe Flesch, a Rav in Vienna, spoke about Yehudis’s determination in the story of Chanukah to stand up for what was right. He continued by noting that although yeshivos had spread throughout Europe and a proper Jewish education was available to boys, there was unfortunately no comparable option for Jewish girls. They were forced to attend public schools and received only a rudimentary religious education at Sunday schools.

Lacking a solid Jewish background, the girls were frequently swept up in the anti-religious movements of the time, often corrupting other family members with them. Harav Flesch stressed the need for a modern-day Yehudis to step forward and establish a system of formal education for Jewish girls. This would ensure that they would remain religious and that the yeshivah students would be able to find G-d-fearing women to marry.

Everybody in the packed synagogue heard Harav Flesch’s inspiring words on that fateful day. However, only one of them truly “heard” the message. Her name was Sarah Schenirer. She was inspired by his address to establish the modern Bais Yaakov movement to give Jewish girls the opportunity to receive a proper Jewish education.

Many times in life Hashem sends us messages. Although we hear the information, we often ignore the call to action which is required. At those times, let us “hear” the lesson of Yisro and properly understand the changes that we are required to undertake.

Parashah Q & A

Q: In the Pesach Haggadah, we say that if Hashem had brought us to Har Sinai, but not given us the Torah, it would have been enough for us. What would be the benefit of coming there if we didn’t get the Torah?

Q: The Gemara in Kesuvos (103a) derives from an extra letter in 20:12 that a person is required to honor his older brother. Does this obligation also apply to one’s older sister?

A: The Rashbam and Kol Bo explain that Hashem wouldn’t have given us the 10 Commandments directly, but would have given us the entire Torah through Moshe. The Ksav Sofer suggests that the value would have been the tremendous levels of unity and harmony that they reached when camping at Sinai (Rashi 19:2). The Chayei Adam answers that when the Heavens were revealed, the Jewish people saw the Divine chariot, from which they would have been able to intuit the commandments even if they weren’t given, just as Avraham Avinu did. The Brisker Rav cites the Gemara in Sanhedrin (59a), which teaches that it is forbidden for a non-Jew to study Torah, which was given exclusively to us. He posits that the intention is if Hashem wouldn’t have only given the Torah “lanu” — to us — it still would have been enough.

A: The Midrash teaches that Rochel died young as a punishment for responding to Yaakov before her older sister Leah could speak (Bereishis 31:14). The Shevus Yaakov rules that one is not strictly obligated in the technical legal requirements associated with honoring a parent or older brother, but derech eretz (good manners) dictates that one not speak before them, as we learn from Rochel. This is also the opinion of the Beis Lechem Yehudah and Pischei Teshuvah (Yoreh Deah 240:22). However, the Torah Temimah disagrees, arguing that Rochel wouldn’t be punished so harshly unless she violated an actual law. He also cites Rashi (Avodah Zarah 17a), who writes that people are accustomed to kiss the hands of their fathers, mothers and siblings to show respect. This is also the opinion of the Birkei Yosef.  Harav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, zt”l, is quoted as ruling that one should follow the latter opinion.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email