Most of us, by this point in the High Holiday season, have heard at least one speech or lecture in which we have be exhorted to repent and improve our performance of Mitzvos. We have head about specific problems that may challenge us as individuals, or about indiscretions that unfortunately are widespread and communal in nature. We have been offered suggestions on what to change and how to change. This coming Shabbos, the Shabbos between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, there is a tradition that the rabbis of each synagogue or community deliver such speeches, to arouse within us the desire to repent.
According to Rav Sholom Schvadron zt”l, we do not necessarily utilize to the fullest the power of hearing which has been granted us by G-d. The Torah tells us that “When Yisro, the priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard of all that Hashem had done for Moshe, and for Israel His people, and that Hashem had brought Israel out of Egypt; … And Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moshe into the wilderness, where he encamped at the mount of G-d.” About what event in particular did Yisro hear? There are three differing opinions: He heard about the victory of the nation of Israel over the nation Amalek, who warred with the nation of Israel in an unprovoked attack; He heard about the giving of the Torah; He heard about the splitting of the Red Sea. Regardless the exact event, Yisro, by hearing about the event, was not unique. The entire world heard about all three of these events. Yisro was not alone. So why does the Torah tell us that Yisro heard about what Hashem did? The later part of the verse is the answer: “And Yisro came.”
Yisro heard about “all that Hashem had done for Moshe and for Israel His people.” Yisro did not merely hear with his ears; he heard with his heart. He internalized what he was hearing. He understood its implications and ramifications. By hearing, he understood that Hashem is the One and Only. The Medrash on this portion tells us “he felt remorse and repented. He said, “The only thing for me to do is to join the G-d of Israel.” Yisro heard and understood what he was hearing. And most importantly, he acted on what he heard. He repented and came to join the nation of Israel.
Rav Schvadron explains the danger of faulty hearing by means of a parable. A young man 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 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 the 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 because this was true, he unwittingly placed himself in mortal danger.
We say in the High Holiday prayers that “Repentance, prayer and charity can remove from upon us the evil decree.” Many have the idea that during this time of the year, when our fate is in the balance, we should focus on increased dedication to G-d and increased performance of Mitzvos. While this is needed and encouraged, this is not repentance. Increased prayer and charity (as well as other mitzvos) are separate and apart from repentance, as the passage implies. To repent, practically speaking, means to return to G-d, to abandon one’s improper actions and become a new person. Just doing new actions does not suffice. We find in many writings that the term “Chozer,” “one who returns” is used in connection with repentance. We have to return to G-d, by turning ourselves around and traveling on the path that He has set before us, not the path that our whims and desires brought us to.
We pray every day asking G-d for forgiveness. We pray that G-d help us repent. We hear the words of our Rabbis and teachers about penitence. But do we really hear what is being said? Do we really take the words to heart? We learn from Yisro that to truly hear, one has to act. We have to repent. If we don’t, we are staring down a rapidly approaching train, which can only lead to consequences that we do not want to contemplate.
With wishes for a G’mar Chasima Tovah.
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For questions, comments, and topic requests, please write to Rabbi Yehudah Prero.