Listening to others’ views costs us nothing

Rabbi Roxanne J.S. Shapiro serves as rabbi and director of lifelong learning at United Hebrew Congregation.  She is treasurer of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association and chair of the Jewish Educators Council in St. Louis.  

By Rabbi Roxanne J.S. Shapiro

In a day and age in which some spend so much time arguing about differences and only respect opinions that come from those who are deemed “of similar views,” we should be encouraged by this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, and challenge ourselves to focus on what we can learn from those who may be different or come from a different stream of thought.  

After Moses leads the Israelites out of the bonds of Egyptian slavery, his father-in-law, Jethro, brings his daughter, Moses’ wife and grandchildren to meet up with Moses in the wilderness.  As they converse about their lives, Moses shares with Jethro, a Midianite priest, all of the events of the plagues and miracles  performed by God that the Israelites experienced.  

Jethro blesses “the Lord … [and exclaims] Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods …”

After the next day, Jethro notices all the work Moses is doing while he serves as a magistrate among the people.  Jethro offers Moses some advice.  Jethro suggests that Moses appoints chiefs to handle the matters between the people, while Moses should focus on matters relating directly to God.  Moses heeds his father-in-law’s advice and chooses capable men to be the chiefs among the people.

It should be noted that the Midianites and Israelites did not, historically, share a positive relationship.  So, the very notion that the legal system that Moses established came from the advice of a Midianite priest deserves attention.  There are commentators who have criticized Moses for taking the advice of an “idolator,” arguing that Moses should have taken direction only from God.  However, others seek to give more credit to Jethro and his advice to Moses.


In light of today’s world, I turn to this lesson from the Torah as a reminder that we can learn much from those who may be different than we are.   Too often we look for advice from those who have the same views.  Yet, by listening to those of other perspectives, we may be able to shed a new light on a matter.  

I am not suggesting that we need to automatically accept what another is saying and change our direction, as Moses did, but we are not harmed by listening.  Additionally, by hearing other opinions and thoughts, sometimes we are able to strengthen our own perspective.  

Through the practice of civil discourse, whether it be with interfaith or intercultural groups, bipartisan activities or on mixed-profession teams, we can come to learn and appreciate the perspective of others, even if our minds are not changed.

Through learning from the experiences of others, we can discover approaches that might help in our own situation.  

By observing how others practice or work, we may find techniques that enhance our own performance.  

Or, we may find that what works for others simply does not apply to our situation.  However, by the act of listening and sharing and treating each person as if they are created “b’tzelem Elohim” (in the image of God), we have strengthened our community and brought a small amount of peace to the world.