Parashat Yitro

How We Hear

Jewish tradition places great emphasis on the way in which we hear and how we interpret the messages we receive.

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After detailing the miraculous deliverance of the Israelites from the hands of their evil oppressors, the Book of Exodus catapults the hungry reader into Parashat Yitro, which includes the quintessentially defining moment of Jewish history--the Revelation at Mount Sinai.

In a fashion reminiscent of a multi-sensory Disney World ride, the text describes this historic encounter with unparalleled vividness. Harkening back to Abraham’s initial encounter with God in Genesis 15, the reader finds himself encircled by the darkest of clouds at the foot of a smoldering Mount Sinai. Yet despite the darkness, the text records this unprecedented event as a moment of total and absolute sensory awareness. So penetrating was the experience that the text actually records the participant’s ability to not only hear the thunder, but to “see” the sounds as well (Exodus 20:15).

Tradition has much to say about the way in which the ancient Israelites heard the experience of Sinai. According to one account, each word of the Revelation was heard as if they were all uttered simultaneously. According to another account, each Israelite heard the words of the Revelation differently, depending on his or her ability to comprehend the Divine message.

Hearing the Revelation

The ancient sages placed much emphasis on the “hearing of Revelation,” and this attention is underscored by their fascination with the physiognomy of our bodies and their concern for our ability to use and not abuse the power of speech and hearing.

Consider, for example, the explanation of the practice of piercing a hole in the earlobe of a Jewish slave who, when offered freedom, opts to remain with his master. According to a midrash, the piercing of the earlobe was a punishment for the slave’s failure to hear and heed the fact that God selected the Israelites as special servants at Sinai. OK, but why pierce the earlobe? If the punishment was intended as a reminder of the heavy price we pay for not listening, wouldn’t harming the eardrum have made greater sense?

Our sages answer this question by suggesting that the outer ear’s purpose is to serve as a funnel that collects sound waves and directs them to the inner ear. In this case, the shortcoming of the slave was not that he did not hear on Sinai that we are all to subjugate ourselves to God alone. Rather, he failed to hear that command as if it were directed to him, and him alone. His outer ear failed to funnel those words inside where they could be appropriately internalized, and as a result the outer ear bears the blemish as a constant reminder of its misdeed.

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David Frankel is the Associate International Director at NCSY. He was previously the director of the Young Leadership Division of UJA-Federation of New York.