Shema, the word (not the prayer) is a remarkably subtle one. Almost any (somewhat aware) American Jew will instinctively translate the word as hear (as in hear o’ Israel). Indeed, this is one opinion in the gemara (Berachos 13a) but it is not the whole story.
The Rabbis teach that one may recite the prayer Shema even in translation, for the word shema implies bechol lashon she’ata shomeia that the prayer may be recited in any language that you understand. Rebbe’s opinion is that the prayer Shema is confined to Hebrew and the word shema implies that one must hear the prayers which one utters. Deconstructed, the essence of the dispute seems simple: what does shema mean. Is it the mere physical act of hearing or does it imply the deeper notion of comprehension? There is yet another approach to the word shema. But first, a word from our parsha:
Vayishma Yitro and Yisro heard all that which Hashem had done for the Moshe and his nation (Shemos, 18:1). Presumably, all that refers to the miraculous barrage of plagues culminating in the grand finale of the splitting of the sea. Indeed, Rashi basically confirms this notion (Shemos, ibid). If this read is correct, then it must elicit the obvious question: Did only Yisro hear the news, only a few chapters earlier we stated that the all the nations heard and were frightened, a line we recite daily in az yashir (Shemos, 15:14 shamu amim yirgazun, chil achaz yoshvei pelashet)?
Who was Yisro? The text sheds little light. He was a priest from Midyan with daughters at the well. End of story. The midrash fills in the gaps. Yisro was an advisor to Pharaoh (Sanhedrin 106a). He was a spiritual seeker. Indeed, Rashi relates to us that Yisro experimented with every faith known to man and after trying the rest he stuck with the best (Shemot, 18:11). One hears echoes of Avraham Avinu. Indeed, Rambam explicitly states that Avraham too looked at all the idols of the world. (Avodah Zarah, 1:3)
Further ties bind these two great men. In a cute way, Yitro represents the continuation of Avraham. Avraham had a hey added to his name, and Yitro had a vuv added. More significantly, Avraham came from the outside to become the first Jew and Yisro was the first outsider to join the nascent Jewish nation. The connection deepens. Avraham didn’t just have 2 kids, Yitzchak and Yishmael. He had 4 others, and one was Midian. Midian’s descendant was Yisro! Thus Avraham was the direct ancestor of Midian. Finally and significantly, they are both given the same name which appears to no one else; the word eitan, the strong one (Rambam, ibid, cf. Shemos Rabbah, 27:3). Where does this all lead?
Avraham the truth seeker transmits that trait to future generations. Yisro taps into it and his restless soul can not find serenity. Yisro is not looking to merely hear truth nor is he looking to just comprehend it. He is looking to listen. The whole world had also heard the news, and probably understood it intellectually, but look how the world responded. Amalek fought truth and Paroh evaded it and most of the world remained blissfully off course too busy making plans as life passed it by.
Vayishma Yisro. And Yisro listened! He transcended shemia1 (physical) and was not content with shemia2 (intellectual). His shemia3 animated him to come and to overcome, to move and to be moved. (cf. Rashi, Vayichad Yitro). Yisro probably sacrificed his station in life and the attendant trappings and prestige because he ultimately realized that it was false. What remarkable strength, what an incredible eitan was Yisro – an eitan the son of an eitan.
I am not sure which comes first. Is it that one who has developed incredible inner strength can then really listen or is it that one who has the ability to really listen can achieve great inner strength? I suspect there is no one answer. But surely, we might want to give it a try.
Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.