P esach night: A time to speak and to listen, to ask and to answer, to inspire others and to stir our own hearts.

The first year they made Pesach on their own, the young family sat at the Seder like conquering heroes. Moved and gratified, they began to recount the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim: Yaakov and his sons emigrated to Mitzrayim, Pharaoh issued vicious decrees. The Egyptians tossed our babies into the Nile, and the toil was grueling and relentless.

And, a different sort of torture — the maddening work of building Pisom and Raamses, Pharaoh’s storage cities. They were built on quicksand, so that each day’s work disappeared overnight and the Jews began anew, pointlessly, each morning.

Looking around to his rapt audience, the father told this story:

There once was a prisoner in Siberia, who was held in solitary confinement for 25 years. His cell was bare, except for a wheel attached to the wall that, he was told, was connected to a mill on the outside. His job was to turn the wheel for 12 hours each day.

At long last, his sentence was over. He left his cell and saw daylight for the first time in decades. He scanned the landscape, eager to see the mill he had operated for so many years. The warden laughed at his naïveté. “There’s no mill here, the wheel wasn’t attached to anything at all.”

The story ends tragically. Our prisoner, strong and steadfast throughout 25 years of deprivation and solitude, was now broken completely. Devastated, he collapsed in grief and died on the spot.

The story came to an end, and there was a moment of silence around the Seder table. Then, as the family turned to the next page of the Haggadah, they heard an unmistakable sob.

A young child, perhaps nine years old, was crying bitterly, his head in his arms. “That’s so terrible,” he kept saying. “That’s so terrible.”

To Stir the Soul

Years have passed, and we have been privileged, b’chasdei Hashem, to host many Sedorim, for children and grandchildren. We have repeated the prisoner’s story many times. Our young son is now the father of his own children. And sometimes we can still detect a glimmer of tears in his adult eyes when we reach that page in the Haggadah.

When do words and stories make an impact? How does listening touch the heart and stir the soul?

The Midrash extols the power of the ear: “How cherished is Yisrael to its Creator! He coaxes them with these words: ‘If someone falls off the roof and injures his entire body, what does the doctor do? He bandages the limbs one by one, leaving the patient covered with surgical dressings. But I, Hashem, do not do that. Even if all your 248 limbs are soiled with sin, but one of them, the ear, chooses to listen, then your entire body will be revived!’ ” (Shemos Rabbah, 27)

Hashem cajoles us to listen, with the promise that listening alone can bring life to even the greatest sinner. The precedent for this assertion, that one needs only to repair his ear, and the entire body will fall into line, is Yisro, the first convert, who joined the ranks of Klal Yisrael at the start of their Midbar journey.

Yisro was indeed soiled with sin — he had sought out and tested all the idols of his time. What sparked his transformation? His story, which occurs shortly after the splitting of the sea, begins with the words “Vayishma Yisro — and Yisro heard” (Shemos, 18:1).

Hear a Message, Not a Sound

What precisely did Yisro hear? The Torah tells us: “Yisro heard all that Hashem had done for Moshe and Yisrael, that He had brought them out of Mitzrayim.” In truth, many nations heard about these current events. The Song of the Sea testifies that many nations were impressed and terrified when they heard about Kri’as Yam Suf; it was Yisro alone who translated these emotions into action. Similarly, the kings of the world heard the thunder of Matan Torah and came to seek advice from Bilaam. He reassured them that the world wasn’t coming to an end; Hashem was giving the Torah to Yisrael. The kings offered their good wishes — “May Hashem bless His people with peace” — and returned to their lives. Yisro, however, heard the noise and made a life-changing decision.

Clearly, two parties can hear the same voice, but while one overhears simple words and sounds, the other perceives piercing messages. The baalei mussar tell us that the person who allows himself to feel and to contemplate, to respond and to stir, is someone who can reach greatness. By contrast, the person unlikely to grow is the one who’s always “chilled,” who makes light of what he hears and experiences, whose frequent refrains are, “What’s the big deal?” and “What difference does it make?”

The Midrash quotes a verse from Yeshayahu (55:3) that equates listening with life: “Shimu u’techi nafshechem — Listen, and your soul shall live!” The art of listening has the power to purify the body and rejuvenate the soul. Rabbeinu Yonah explains the nature of this art in Shaarei Teshuvah: “When one hears mussar and accepts the words, in that moment, he has gone from darkness into great illumination, and he has transformed into a different person.”

A study of Yisro and the messages that penetrated his heart will enlighten us as to how one can progress from listening to acceptance.

Rashi asks a simple question: “What did Yisro hear that made him come [to Bnei Yisrael]?” He certainly heard many reports about Klal Yisrael; which news item motivated him to chart a new course of life? What thought processes provoked his momentous decision?

Yisro took note of three events: the splitting of the sea, the war with Amalek, and Matan Torah. The Maharal gives insight into Yisro’s perception: While the ten plagues had demonstrated that Hashem was more powerful than the idols and magicians of Egypt, these more recent events established His absolute control over the entire universe. First, He split all the waters in the world when He split the Red Sea (see Rashi, Shemos 14:21), showing his authority on earth; then, He stopped the sun during the battle with Amalek (see Rashi, Shemos 17:12), showing his authority in the heavens; lastly, He brought the Torah down from the otherworldly spheres, showing His authority beyond the heavens.

Alternatively, other commentaries point out that these three occasions demonstrated to Yisro that Hashem loves Klal Yisrael more than all the other nations: He drowned their enemies in spectacular fashion, He declared war against Amalek “from generation to generation” after their provocative attack on His people, and He gave Yisrael the gift of His precious Torah.

In any case, Yisro deciphered a personal message that deserved attention and thought. Other listeners may have been momentarily dazzled by each event, but it remained for them a distant, if fascinating, tale.

Noblest of All Limbs

It is striking that the potential power of listening is reflected in various halachic rulings, in observations of Chazal, and in the actual anatomy of the ear. The Maharzu cites the law of injuries and damages: If someone injures another person, causing loss of a limb or an organ, he is required to make amends by paying the victim the monetary value of that limb. So for example, if someone pokes out another’s eye — accidentally or deliberately — he pays him the value of his eye. However, in the case of loss of hearing, the ruling changes. The aggressor must pay him the value of his entire body. (This is assessed by calculating his worth were he to be sold as a slave.)

Clearly, the ear is not merely a single organ; it leads to and impacts the entire body. As Rabbeinu Yonah writes, it’s the noblest of all human limbs. The actual shape of the ear canal resembles a funnel, and it carries sounds deep inside the body. The spiritual counterpart of this physical reality is that an attentive ear hears words that touch not only the ear — but the heart.

Our ears need not only absorb sounds, but to be constantly awake to receive messages. Again, the structure of the ear emphasizes this truth. The Maharal points out that the ear doesn’t close easily, because it’s meant to be a receptor. It has no lid like the eyes, and no lips like the mouth. When necessary, you can use your fingers or the earlobe to muffle sounds and block out inappropriate speech, but this requires some effort. In its default position, the ear remains open.

Ears Attached to the Heart

Famously, when the eved Ivri, the Hebrew slave, opts to remain with his master beyond his release date, his ear is pierced. Why is it the ear that is marked? After all, the slave serves his master with his arms and legs! Our Sages explain that in a sense we blame the ear for the slave’s decision. It was his ear that heard the words of Hashem at Har Sinai — “Bnei Yisrael are to be My servants” — yet he nonetheless has chosen to remain enslaved to a mortal man.

The Torah is making a crucial statement: This decision began with an ear that heard the words but didn’t assimilate any personal message. Because the ear didn’t fulfill its task of funneling the message to his heart, it’s considered damaged and impaired.

Of course, the words of Sinai were addressed not only to the eved Ivri, but to each of us. Furthermore, Moshe Rabbeinu tells us that these words are not merely a memory. He reminds Klal Yisrael that they heard “Kol gadol v’lo yosaf — a great sound that didn’t cease” (Devarim, 5:19). If the sound of Matan Torah is active and continuous, Rav Aharon Kotler wonders, where do we hear it? He explains that it reverberates in the Torah itself. A person who engages in Torah study or who at least has contact with talmidei chachamim will, if he listens for it, hear the Voice.

Sadly, many of us resemble the eved Ivri. We hear so much and contemplate so little. For example, we’ll flip through a book of Hashgachah pratis stories, turning the pages rapidly, in search of nothing more than reading entertainment. Our ears are disconnected from our heart, much as the wheel of the prisoner was unattached to anything of substance.

Let us not squander the precious gift of life by merely spinning our wheels.

For even a young child cries at the thought of a wasted life.

Sources include writings of the Ozorover Rebbe and Rabbi Leff.

Originally featured in Family First, Issue 585. Mrs. Shani Mendlowitz is a teacher at Bais Yaakov Seminary in Montreal, and is a popular lecturer for adults.