D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
Learn to listen and listen to learn
It isn’t easy being an active listener in our fast-paced 21st century world. Besieged by all kinds of noise and distractions, it’s difficult for many of us to empty our minds and really hear what someone is trying to communicate. It is often hard to listen because we may be focused on our response or because we are preoccupied with our own unrelated concerns that include an endless catalog of daily obligations. However, when we really listen to another person, empty our minds and hear what someone is saying, we are better able to process information being conveyed to us; increase others’ trust in us; reduce conflict; and better understand how to inspire others.
In the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, Moses is reunited with his family. Traveling from their home in Midian, his wife Tzipporah, sons Gershom and Eliezer, and father-in-law Jethro (Yitro), arrive at the Israelites’ camp in the wilderness. According to the Midrash all of the other nations heard about the splitting of the Red Sea and the Israelite victory over Amalek, but only one man-- Jethro, really listened to these reports and grasped their meaning. As Moses recounts the story of how God delivered the Israelites from the Egyptians, Jethro offers a blessing: בָּרוּךְ ה אֲשֶׁר הִצִּיל אֶתְכֶם מִיַּד מִצְרַיִם וּמִיַּד פַּרְעה , Blessed be God who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh. Jethro then offers a sacrifice to God.
Having settled in to life in the wilderness, Jethro now turns his attention to a typical day in the life of Moses and the Israelites. He notices how his son-in-law meets with the people all day long, listening and responding to their questions and concerns. Observing the great pressure Moses is under, and perhaps understanding how hard it is for Moses as the sole adjudicator of the people to really listen for so long a time, Jethro is concerned about the negative impact this could have on Moses and the entire community. He approaches his son-in-law and says: שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי --listen to me – if you continue to take on this undertaking by yourself, you will burn out. Find capable men among the people who can help you in your task.
Following his father-in-law’s advice, Moses appoints a group of men to help him settle the concerns of each Israelite, ensuring that all in need of help will be given an opportunity to really be heard. In so doing, Moses the greatest prophet in Israel, not only learned how to listen but how to listen in order to learn.
Powerless does not mean helpless or hopeless.
Just because you feel helpless or hopeless doesn’t mean it’s true. We all experience moments of despair that keep us from moving forward in our lives. But no matter how helpless or hopeless we might feel, there is always something we can do to lift our mood such as talking with a friend, making dinner or performing a deed of loving kindness. All of those actions help jumpstart us out of our despair and provide an antidote to feeling helpless and hopeless. As Teddy Roosevelt once said: When you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on.
In this week’s Torah portion, B’Shalach Pharaoh has given the Israelites permission to leave Egypt. The Israelites hastily depart, but not long after their exodus Pharaoh once again changes his mind declaring,
מַה־זֹּ֣את עָשִׂ֔ינוּ כִּֽי־שִׁלַּ֥חְנוּ אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵֽעָבְדֵֽנוּ
What is this we have done, releasing Israel from our service?
Pharaoh then instructs his army to go after Moses and the Israelites.
As the people catch site of Pharaoh and his army, they find themselves fenced in by the sea in front of them and the Egyptian army behind them. Trapped in this way, it would have been easy for the Israelites to feel hopeless and helpless. But God encourages them to seize the moment and take one small step forward into the sea. If they can do that their despair will be lifted. God will part the waters allowing them to cross over on dry land and escape the Egyptians. It is in that moment the Israelites come to understand that powerless does not mean helpless or hopeless.
Don’t tell God how big your storm is; tell the storm how big your God is!
We all set goals for ourselves. We all have dreams we’d like to fulfill. On the other hand, we also know and expect that the road towards achieving those goals and dreams will be met with obstacles. We can view those obstacles as signs we will not achieve our goal and then complain how difficult it is to overcome the storm in our way. Or we can view them as an opportunity to grow and loudly declare --big storm or not—our faith is bigger and will not allow us to be deterred.
In this week’s Torah portion Vaera, God directs Moses and his brother Aaron to make an appearance before Pharaoh and convince him to let the Israelites leave Egypt. This is not the first time the brothers have visited Pharaoh. In a previous encounter with the Egyptian king they not only fail to convince him to let the Israelites go, but Pharaoh then punishes the Israelites because of the brothers’ efforts. Not happy with Moses and Aaron the Israelites blame them for their troubles and refuse to listen to Moses’ tale of God’s promise. Not surprisingly, Moses is hesitant to try again. After all, הֵן בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא־שָֽׁמְעוּ אֵלַי וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה, if the Israelites won’t listen to me why should Pharaoh. (Ex. 6:12)
In the end Moses and Aaron don’t give up. They go back to Pharaoh and with the unleashing of the plagues display the enormity of God’s power. In other words, instead of complaining to God how difficult their task is – how big their storm is, they instead tell the storm in the guise of Pharaoh, how big and powerful is their God. As we shall see in next week’s portion, this strategy will be the more successful approach.
“What if” gets you nowhere, “Yeah but” halts progress in its tracks, “If only” never came true.
At various points in our lives we are asked to do things we don’t want to do. Sometimes we just go ahead and do them but sometimes we make excuses for why we can’t or won’t do them. I forgot. I was busy. I had an emergency. I didn’t do it because “what if” I fail? “Yeah (I know I should do it) but” nobody cares about it. I would do it “if only” I had the skills to do it.”
Excuses help to disconnect us from responsibility, reduce our feelings of guilt and save us from admitting a personal weakness or failure. But excuses can also make us regret the road not taken and prevent us from growing and changing. As the old Yiddish expression goes: If you don’t want to do something, one excuse is as good as another.
In this week’s Torah portion, Shemot we begin the book of Exodus. The Egyptian Pharaoh has enslaved the Israelites and fearing a rebellion, Pharaoh decrees that all male Hebrew babies should be killed. While Moses is on that list, his sister Miriam finds a way to save him. She places Moses in a basket and floats the basket down the Nile River where Pharaoh’s daughter finds it and takes the baby to raise as her own child.
The next thing we know Moses is an adult who has killed an Egyptian he witnesses beating an Israelite. Forced to flee Egypt, Moses settles in Midian, gets married, becomes a shepherd and raises two sons.
One day while tending his flock Moses wanders a little bit further out than usual-- to Mt. Horeb in the wilderness-- where he notices a burning bush. As Moses begins to comprehend that the bush’s flames are not being consumed by the fire, he hears a voice call out to him. It is the voice of God who charges Moses to bring the Israelites out of Egypt.
Moses responds with an assortment of excuses including: “What if I can’t speak clearly to them? After all I have never been a man of words.” “Yeah, but what if the Israelites don’t believe me?” “If only I was the right man for this task, but who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”
Moses’ reluctance comes a place of both fear and inertia. But despite his doubts he is eventually able to take a leap of faith. In doing so Moses can finally comprehend that “What if” gets you nowhere, “Yeah but” halts progress in its tracks, “If only” never came true.
Try to replace guilt with gratitude
At some point in our lives we have all felt remorse, guilt or regret for something we did wrong; for the harm we may have caused another person; or even for an action we took that may not have been the right one to pursue. These feelings of remorse, guilt and regret are often reinforced when later on we are somehow reminded of what we did.
Remorse, guilt and regret can also be psychological bummers that make us aware of what we could have and should have done better. Maybe we shouldn’t have spread gossip. Maybe we shouldn’t have cheated on our spouse. Maybe we shouldn’t have lied about our bad habits.
One way to get over our guilt is to accept responsibility for what we did, ask for forgiveness and be thankful for the lesson learned. In this way we begin to ensure that our guilt will not get in the way of our gratitude.
In this week’s Torah portion Vayechi, Jacob knowing he is about to die, calls together all of his sons. Addressing each one individually and providing instructions as to his burial, Jacob is then וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל־עַמָּֽיו, gathered to his people.
Despite Joseph’s earlier assurance that he bears no grudge against them, the brothers worry that with Jacob out of the way Joseph will now feel free to take his revenge on them. As a result, they concoct a story about Jacob leaving instructions before his death urging Joseph to forgive his brothers. The brothers then fling themselves before Joseph and offer to become slaves in Egypt. But Joseph again assures them he bears no grudge.
In the years since Joseph revealed himself, the brothers’ lack of faith made them wary of Joseph’s true intention. Instead of enjoying those years with their brother, they were fearful of his revenge. Instead of being grateful for God’s goodness they felt guilty about what they did to their brother and father. In order to find peace and move on with their lives, Joseph’s brothers will need to find a way to replace their guilt with gratitude.