pay attention

At this time of year, when we pray for life, remember to listen carefully and pay attention to what happens around you in order to get the most out of life.

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

Most of us end up hearing a bunch of inspiring sermons leading up to (and on) Yom Kippur. Although often repetitive, the themes are very important: repentance, sin, confession, God, love, change, mitzvot (commandments), piety and the like. The question I would like to ask is whether one actually  internalize theses messages or even ‘hears’ them.

Recall the story of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. The Torah says:

“When Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’s father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, and that God had brought Israel out of Egypt;And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moses into the wilderness, where he encamped at the mount of God.” About what event in particular did Jethro hear? The Torah doesn’t tell us what he heard or what impressed him.

There are three different opinions among the sages: He heard about the victory of the nation of Israel over the Amalekites who had attacked, he heard about the giving of the Torah, or possibly he heard about the splitting of the Red Sea.

It is actually irrelevant which of the events had caused him to join the Jewish people. What’s important to realize is that Jethro wasn’t the only one to hear about these events. The entire world heard about these events! Jethro was not alone.

So why does the Torah only tell us that Jethro heard about what God did for the Jewish people? Because he was the only on who “came” – or, in other words, who paid attention.

This is the difference between a Jethro and possibly everyone else in the world at that time: Jethro didn’t not merely hear with his ears what God had done; he heard with his heart! He internalized what he heard. He acted on what he heard – he went to “check out” the Jewish people and decided to join them.

The parable is told of a young man who lived his entire life in the countryside. He grew up in a home located nowhere near any urban centers. He was used to his very simple way of life, with no knowledge of the many modern conveniences and advances in technology of which the “city people” availed themselves.

The time finally came when he had to travel to the big city. Nearing the city, he came upon a road. However, this was unlike any that he had ever seen. He noticed something unusual in the middle of the path. There were iron bars with wooden planks running between them, running as far as his eyes could see in both directions. He was enthralled with these shiny iron bars and decided to inspect them closely.

As he was looking at this discovery, he heard a sound in the distance, unlike that which he had ever heard. He remained on the unusual “road” and just stared at the object that was making the fascinating whistling sound. This object was coming closer, and with the rapid approach, the noise was occurring with a much greater frequency and with greater volume.

This young man had no idea he was standing on train tracks. He had no idea that the sound he heard was the whistle of the train. He had no idea that the train engineer was sounding the whistle to warn him that his life was in peril if he remained standing on the tracks.

The young man heard, but he did not understand what he was hearing. He did not act on what he was hearing and therefore unwittingly placed himself in mortal danger.

The lesson here is: Be like Jethro and act upon all the good that comes your way!