Parshas Yisro begins with words, “וישמע יתרו” - “And Jethro heard.” Sitting in Midian, the exciting and dramatic news came, “all that God did to Moshe and to Israel, His people, when God took Israel out of Egypt.” There is no reason to believe that Jethro had a unique source of information. The news came to town and was available to everyone; it was probably one of the main topics of conversation for quite some time: “Hey! Did you hear the latest on what’s happening in Egypt? Blood, frogs, wild animals!” “The whole Egyptian army drowned! Who could have imagined?” “Amalek defeated! Read all about it!”
Yet, while the information was available to everyone, only Jethro truly “heard” the news. He heard the same news everyone else did, but he was the only one who accepted what it truly meant and acted upon it. To “hear” means much more than simply to passively hear a sound, it means to think about what you hear, to understand it, and to change yourself in response to the new knowledge.
“שמע ישראל ה' אלקנו ה' אחד” – “Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4). We are commanded not simply to repeat the words, but to think about them and internalize this knowledge. It is not enough to simply recite a creed, even if we are entirely sincere. We must “hear” it – the knowledge has to effect a change in us.
When the Jewish people accepted the Torah, they declared, “נעשה ונשמע” – “We will do and we will hear.” (Exodus 24:7) As many commentators point out, placing “we will do” before “we will hear” demonstrates that the Jewish people were not referring to the listening necessary for basic compliance with the law. That level of listening is already implicit in “we will do”, as one cannot obey a law that one has not heard. When the Jewish people said, “we will hear”, they were saying that they would not simply obey the laws in a superficial and rote manner, but that they would “listen” to the lessons that the laws teach and that those lessons would change them into better people.
This is the mission of the Jewish people, not simply to do, but to listen. Jethro is a model for us of how one who truly “listens”, one who truly “hears”, can go from being the idolatrous “priest of Midian” to being the “father-in-law of Moses.”