Weekly Sermon

Weekly Sermon

YITRO 5780

If Gd Sends You a Message, Don’t Treat It Like Spam

The names of each week’s Torah reading are always derived from a significant word in the 1st verse that’s full of lessons. This week’s portion is called Yitro (Jethro). The reading begins, Vayishma Yitro (And Yitro heard). What exactly did Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, hear? The Torah (Ex. 18:1) tells us: kol asheyr asa Elokim l’Moshe ul’Yisrael amo, “everything that Gd had done for Moses and the Jewish people”—which no doubt included the 10 Plagues, the Exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea. These are the events that defined us as a people—culminating with Gd’s revelation of the 10 Commandments and the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai in today’s parsha.

All these happenings were the catalyst for Yitro—this former priest of Midian—to reorder his life and become part of the Jewish people. It’s amazing if you think about it. The name of today’s Torah portion should have been Moses because it was Moses that helped bring the 10 Plagues; it was Moses that helped part the waters of the Red Sea; and it was Moses that brought us the Torah from Mt. Sinai. And yet the name of today’s Torah portion is not Moses, but Yitro.

To heighten the question further, Yitro was a not even Jewish, and yet, he has the honor of the name of the Torah portion where the Torah and 10 Commandments were given. Amazing! And yes, this is precisely the point! Yitro converted and became a Jew of choice. What the Torah is showing us is that the Torah is not meant just for the Jews, but for the entire world. This is a wonderful illustration of someone who saw the light, came to the Jewish people and accepted the Torah. Similarly we can ask: why was the Torah was given in the desert of Sinai and not in the Land of Israel? Because a desert is no-man’s land—which is another way of saying it is everyone’s land. Bottom line: Gd’s Torah is for everyone.

Again, the Torah portion begins Vayishma Yitro (Yitro heard). The musical note on the word Vayishma (heard) is geyrshayim which is used to place a special emphasis on the word. If you think about it, this is a bit unusual because the simple fact that Yitro heard should not seem as significant as what he heard.

The Torah here is teaching us something about the art of listening. My work as a couples’ therapist has shown me that the primary problem people have in relationships is that they feel that they’re not listened to. Gd gave us the Torah—the most precious gift of all—but if we don’t listen to its message, what good is it. Too many miss the message.

At the end of last week’s Torah reading we saw a whole nation that missed it—Amalek, who became the archenemy of the Jewish people. Amalek also heard about the 10 Plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea. Their response was not to become part of the Jewish people like Yitro, but to attack them. Yitro was aware of the same miracles and Vayishma—he listened to Gd’s message and it changed his life. According to the Midrash, Yitro had experimented with every form of idolatry and religion of his time. He searched and searched till he came to the conclusion that Judaism was the path of Truth.

My friends, Gd sends us messages all the time. We just have to be receptive to it. It would be nice when Gd sends a message if it would have caller ID attached to it. But it doesn’t work that way. We need to be more attentive. Will we be like Yitro or Amalek. Both became aware of the same events, yet their responses could not be different.

The human brain has 10 trillion connections. If we would take all the media and telecommunication companies in the world, all the satellites, all the wiring, all the phone numbers in the entire world…take all these connections together and it would not reach even 1% of the brain of one human being! Is it possible that this amazing creation came about by chance? One can look at the brain and see the miracles of Gd and respond like Yitro…or one can be an Amalek, close one’s eyes to the truth and say there is no Gd—it just happened by accident!

In honor of George Washington’s birthday, I’d like to share a story with you. There was family that lived on a farm. The father called his 3 sons, Anthony, Louis and Nick, into the kitchen and asked them, “Which one of you pushed the outhouse into the river?”

            “Not I,” replied Anthony.

            “Nor me,” Louis said.

            “It wasn't me either, father,” said Nick.

            So the father says, “I want to tell you a story about George Washington when he was a boy. George Washington’s father gave him a hatchet and then he chopped down his father’s favorite cherry tree. George Washington’s father asked, ‘George, who chopped down my favorite cherry tree?’”

            George Washington said, “Father, I cannot tell a lie, it was me.” So, George Washington’s father hugged and kissed his son for being honest with him.

            Then Anthony said, “Father, I, like George Washington, cannot tell a lie, I pushed the outhouse into the river.” The father then took off his belt and started to beat him. After the beating Anthony said, “But father, I was honest like George Washington.”

            The father replies, “But George Washington’s father wasn’t in the cherry tree when he chopped it down!”

Yes Anthony heard his father’s George Washington story, but he didn’t pay attention to see if the outhouse was occupied when he pushed it into the river.

The art of listening is about paying attention and being willing to shift our positions and see the world from a different perspective. Yitro exemplified this ability and so did Moses. When Yitro arrived with Moses’ wife and children, the 1st thing he did was to criticize Moses for the way he judged the people singlehandedly. People were standing around waiting all day for Moses to hear their case. Yitro advised him to set up a system of many judges to share the burden so that judging would be more manageable.

Put yourself in Moses’ shoes: He led the Jewish people through the 10 Plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea; he stared down Pharaoh—the most powerful man in his world; he led the Jews through the great miracle of manna falling from Heaven; he brought forth water from a rock; and he’s now about to lead the people to receive the Torah on Mt. Sinai. He achieved more than any other human being…and the 1st thing his father-in-law does when he comes is to tell him how to conduct his business? How would you react?

When someone criticizes us, the natural tendency is to defend ourselves thinking, “What right do they have to say that?” But Moses didn't do that. Moses heard his father-in-law’s criticism, and humbly admitted that Yitro was right and changed his behavior. What’s interesting is that the Torah uses the same word for Moses as it had for Yitro: Vayishma Moshe (heard). This time it was Moses that heard. Moses was willing to listen and be open to go in a different direction.

Let me share with you 3 stories from my life that illustrate this. The 1st is the story of Eric Goodstein (last name changed to protect the innocent). I’ll never forget Eric. Eric was a student in the religious school of my 1st congregation in Margate City, NJ. Eric was a difficult student who was always talking and fooling around in class. Almost every week he would wind up in my office for misbehaving. I would always give him the same message, “Eric, you are an image of Gd, a holy soul, you are better than this.”

            This went on for a number of years till his Bar Mitzvah. I was so excited about his Bar Mitzvah because I was certain that with a student like this, I would never see him again after the Bar Mitzvah. Well, the next fall I got together with the local rabbis to form a Hebrew High School program. Each of us would teach a class. On the 1st night, who did I see in my class—Eric Goodstein! He hadn’t changed and I gave him the same message, “Eric, you are an image of Gd, a holy soul, you are better than this.”

         Well about 10 years later, I was officiating at a wedding in NY. A couple came up to me after the ceremony. It was Eric Goodstein’s parents. I welcomed them warmly. Then the mother pointed her finger at me saying, “Rabbi Kunis, what you did to my son!” I thought, what I did to your son? Look at what he did to me all those years.

         I asked, “What did I do to your son?”

            She continued, “He won’t eat in my home—it’s not kosher enough. He puts on tefillin every day. And he won’t drive on Shabbos!”

Apparently, some part of Eric Goodstein heard the message.

The 2nd story is about how I came to Atlanta. There was a fire in my synagogue in Brooklyn—incidentally, it was my 40th birthday. The fire started in my office from a new small refrigerator I had purchased so that I could have breakfast in my office after minyan in the morning. The fire loosened the asbestos in the steel beams and the EPA closed us down for 6 months till it could be removed.

         The synagogue was a Bar Mitzvah mill. People joined when their kids were young so that they could go to Religious School and have a Bar Mitzvah. Most would quit after the Bar Mitzvah and buy tickets for the High Holy Days. I was stagnating there. Almost no one was interested in learning Torah or growing spiritually. I needed to leave and move on and the fact that the fire began in my office was a clear message to me to do it now.

And finally, do you know how I choose the topic of my sermon every week? Well, I don’t know either. Beginning the day after Shabbos I review a bit of the next week’s Torah portion every day and, as I do, somewhere along the line a thought hits me and won’t let go of me. I’ve learned over the years that this is clear indication of what I must speak about. And wouldn’t you know it, almost every week someone will come up to me afterwards and tell me, “Rabbi, thank you, I really needed to hear your message today.” I heard the message and acted upon it.      

So my friends, don’t be stuck in your ways. Be open to the possibilities of the lessons of life that come your way. And then even when you reach the age of Moses—who was 80 in our Torah portion—and Yitro—who was considerably older—you will continue to grow and be a blessing. Admittedly, I’m not quite that old this week. I only hope and pray that Gd will help me to always be open to life’s messages—the messages He sends me and all of us…as were the Jewish people on Sinai, who when they accepted the Torah, said in one voice (Ex. 24:7): Naaseh v’nishma (We will do and we will hear). Amen

peace have been planted. May they sprout and blossom. Amen!

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