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Posted on January 21, 2022 (5782) By Rabbi Label Lam | Series: | Level:

Now Moshe’s father-in-law, Yisro, the chieftain of Midian, heard all that G-d had done for Moshe and for Israel, His people that HASHEM had taken Israel out of Egypt. (Shemos 18:1)

What put Yisro on the map? How did he merit to come join his son in law Moshe and the Jewish Nation in the desert? What special skill did he possess? The answer may not be so complex. The verse mentions one thing.

What is the most important word in the Torah? True, all words are important! However, there is one word that is so important that it is the cure for many ills, personal and societal. If it’s hard to conjure up the answer it’s probably because the meaning of that word has become obscured.

A Jew was riding on a train traversing the Siberian tundra. Seated next to him was a soldier of the Czar quietly boiling and seething with deep hatred toward the Jew. In one moment, he let loose his anger to the Jew who, unaware of the danger, was staring into one of his holy books. He barked, “What makes you people so smart?” The Jew was startled. He realized his life was at risk and he had better give the correct answer. Without hesitation, with help from heaven, he responded with perfect calm, one word, “Herring!” (That little bony fish) The soldier sternly inquired, “Do you have any?” The Jew acknowledged that he had a few pieces remaining which the soldier demanded with authority should be handed over to him.

Taking a big risk, the Jew refused and insisted he be compensated 20 Rubles for the now desirable herring. The soldier hurriedly threw the money at him and took hold of the prize. In one gulp, like a hungry bear, he swallowed the whole lot of them. After wiping his mouth brutishly, he turned to the Jew, who had calmly returned to his books, and protested, “20 Rubles for those few pieces of fish?! Where we are going to in Moscow, I can get five times that amount for the same price!” At that point the Jew turned to him with a full face and declared, “You see, it’s starting to work already!”

Perhaps the secret is in something like the herring- the hearing. What makes you people so smart? The hearing! Hear O’ Israel…

That statement is the clearest expression of the mission of the Jewish People, singularly and collectively! Not only is it the declaration at each doorpost of the Jewish home or the continuous cry of loyal Jewish tongues twice daily for thousands of years. It’s the cry of the universe! LISTEN!

Isn’t it what husbands are telling their wives and wives to their husbands often with desperation?! It’s what parents are telling children and what children are telling parents. SHEMMAA! Listen! It’s what the teacher and student hope each from one another. It’s what THE ALMIGHTY shouts to His people, “SHEMA Yisrael” -Listen Israel… It’s also what we request in prayer daily, “Shema koleinu- HASHEM ELOCHEINU…Hear our voices HASHEM our G-d!

Here’s a concept I’ve shared with my children at bedtime for years and recently I saw that the Vilna Gaon (Mishlei 4:1) defines the word SHEMA in the same three ways. Perhaps my approach is more playful but as I recently discovered, not less true. The word “SHEMA” with its three letters onomatopoetically sounds out three ideas that together may help us get our arms around that giant of a word- “SHEMA” SHHH- Listen! Quiet down for a moment! Remove all external distractions. Focus undisturbed! (Not so easy!) MMMM- Understand! Hear well what’s being said. Let the message be absorbed gently and thoughtfully into your system. Finally- AHHHH- Accept! Stop resisting what you know to be true in your heart of hearts! Surrender to an idea that is bigger than you! Be ready to act upon and live up to it. If only the word- “SHEMA” would be heard, understood, and accepted properly and exercised practically. What a different world and what a different life it would be and who knows how wise we would be.

I said this at a Sephardic Shabbaton and a Yemenite fellow told me afterward, “Rabbi you are wrong!” He explained that the Yemenites pronounce a guttural letter AYIN that makes it sound like you just inhaled a ping pong ball. “It’s not AHHHH! It’s AHGGGG!”

I realized how right he is. Harder than hearing and understanding is the accepting. It starts out AHGGGG and then eventually we accept, embrace, and even revel in what we understand and then it’s AHHHHHHHH!