Sunday, January 12, 2014
YISRO - THE ART OF LISTENING
One of the striking features of Parshas Yisro is the juxtaposition of the portion about Yisro’s advice to Moshe Rabbeinu with Matan Torah. Reb Tzadok HaKohen provides an interesting insight to this in the name of his Rebbe . He begins by discussing the section in which Yisro advises Moshe to change the judicial system and Moshe accepts his advice. This seems quite unremarkable but on reflection a tremendous mida of Moshe Rabbeinu is displayed in his reaction to Yisro’s advice. Yisro may have been a wise man but he was surely far below the level of his great son-in-law and, moreover had no exposure to the wisdom of Torah. Moshe could have easily heard out his advice and then politely reject it without really considering its application. Instead he listened attentively and gave great thought to the advice and ultimately decided to follow it. Reb Tzadok’s Rebbe says that we learn from Moshe that a person should listen to the words of a hedyot and that this is an aspect of learning from every man. He then explains the juxtaposition with Matan Torah by saying that this lesson is the introduction to Matan Torah because an essential part of learning Torah is the ability to learn it from everyone. One may ask that the ability to listen to others may be of some benefit in learning Torah but surely it is not of such great significance that it should be the main introductory lesson leading up to Matan Torah. Rav Elyah Lopian zt”l answers this question: He writes, “there are people who are masmidim and who toil in Torah, but they do not have the ability to listen to others and to connect with their friends in Torah learning, rather, they are totally engrossed in themselves and their own ‘daled amos’. Such people are not only punished severely, but moreover they will not succeed in their learning whatsoever.” He goes on to explains why the lack of the ability to listen hinders one’s learning so badly. “A person is naturally favorably biased towards himself and is blinded to anything that goes against his opinion. He cannot clarify anything accurately if he won’t listen to what anyone else says. ” It seems that man’s innate inability to hear views that contradict his own can even prevent a talmid from listening properly to those more learned than himself. There is a particular tendency to want to argue with whatever they say. In consequence the talmid can never really understand and absorb what his superior is telling him. In contrast, the ability to wholeheartedly listen and comprehend what others are saying is one of the keys to Gadlus. The Alter of Novardok zt”l expressed this point when extolling the greatness of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt”l. “His wisdom and genius is so great and of so much depth and breadth, because when he was young he was always to be found in the presence of the Gedoley Hador. He never said to them, ‘accept my opinion’, rather he made himself into a ‘vessel’ which would listen and absorb all the opinions and explanations of all the Gedolim there. He absorbed into his very being all the wisdom that he heard and his daas became purified and elevated by the greatness of many generations that became embedded in his mind. ” When we discuss the greatness of Rav Chaim Ozer we generally focus on his incredible natural genius and ability to think of many things at the same time. We see from the words of the Alter that the key to his greatness was his willingness to take in everything that he heard. Whilst there is a challenge to give our full attention to our Rabbeim it is far more difficult to listen effectively to our peers. Often when we hear that a certain person is about to say over an idea or dvar Torah we mentally ‘switch off’ and think about what we want to say next. Apart from showing a lack of derech eretz, such an attitude severely hinders a person’s ability to grow in wisdom. The ability to accept someone else’s opinion, especially when it contradicts one’s own, is an all too rare quality. At one seudas preida, one of the speakers was extolling the virtues of his friend - he told over that they were once having a heated debate about a certain issue and seemed to end the conversation ‘agreeing to disagree’. Later on, he came to his friend and said that he heard where he was coming from and had now changed his opinion on this matter because of their conversation. There are two striking things about this story - one is the person’s gadlus in hearing out a contradictory view and accepting it when it made sense. The second is that this mida is obviously so rare that it was the one chosen to describe the maalos of this person. In truth, this should not be the case - it should be a matter of course that when we are involved in a discussion with someone that we actually ‘listen’ to what they are saying and try to learn from them even if it goes against our original way of thinking. Even more difficult than hearing out our peers is effectively listening to those on a lower level than ourselves. One senior bachur in a yeshiva was troubled by the Mishna in Avos that tells us that the very definition of a wise man is one who can learn from every man, not just Gedolim - he asked a distinguished posek, that there is surely nothing to learn from those on a far lower level of learning. To this, the posek answered that he had taught Mishna Berurah to baaley teshuva who had been learning Torah for about one year. He said that they approached the halachos from angles that he had never experienced before which made him seriously rethink many yesodos that he had come to accept as sacred. We learn from Parshas Yisro that listening to others is one of the very foundations of wisdom. Many commentaries say that this is what the second of the 48 devarim is referring to when it says that ‘shemias haozen’ is a way of acquiring Torah. May we all gain the ability to genuinely listen to what our teacher, friend, or talmid is saying and this should help us learn and understand the Torah.