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Hearing the Small Still Voice in Parshah Yitro

By Rabbi Tani Burton


וַיִּשְׁמַ֞ע יִתְר֨וֹ כֹהֵ֤ן מִדְיָן֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֵת֩ כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה אֱלֹהִים֙ לְמֹשֶׁ֔ה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עַמּ֑וֹ כִּֽי־הוֹצִ֧יא יְהֹוָ֛ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃

Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses' father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel His people, how that the L-RD had brought Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 18:1)

What inspired Jethro to go into the desert?

Clearly, if Jethro had taken upon himself to traverse the desert to find Moses and the Children of Israel, as a sign of his desire to join them, what he had heard must have been very significant. Rashi (loc. cit.) quotes the Sages as saying that Jethro heard about two wondrous incidents: the splitting of the Red Sea, and the war against Amalek, and that these occurrences inspired him in the direction of G-d.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, of blessed memory (Likutei Moharan II:79), in a very cryptic passage, explains that there is an inherent connection between the concepts of hearing, the splitting of the sea, and the war with Amalek. The last of these represents teshuvah (repentance); the war with Amalek was won because Moshe, Aharon, and Chur, who stood atop the mountain overlooking the skirmish, prayed while fasting (Rashi, cf. Exodus 17:10). The splitting of the sea represents the suspension of the dimension of time. The verse states (ibid., verse 14:24), “and it was, before dawn, and G-d turned against the encampment of Egypt with a pillar of fire and cloud, etc.” In earlier verses, we see mention of a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud as separate items. G-d gave the the Children of Israel a pillar of fire for warmth and light during the night, whereas He gave them a pillar of cloud to shield them from the heat of the desert during the day. The pillars represented night and day, respectively. Rebbe Nachman states that when these pillars were combined, so too were day and night; thus, the suspension of time itself.

What is the connection between Teshuvah and suspension of Time?

The connection between teshuvah and the suspension of time is known. When we repent for one or more of our misdeeds, we are, in essence returning ourselves to the state of spiritual purity that we were in prior to committing the sin, which is nothing short of miraculous, since the effects or ramifications of the sin may still be in the world. In the physical world, it is impossible for a broken material object to return to a state of unbrokenness; it is only possible for the object to be fixed. But as we know, it is never the same as it was before. I was told that, when buying a used car, an important guideline is, even if the car seems to be in pristine condition, if you open the doors and hear them creak, you know that something happened to the car.

Teshuvah violates this principle. When a person does complete teshuvah, he or she becomes spiritually whole again, as if the sin never existed. This is time travel in the spiritual sense. On Rosh Hashanah (and, if you’re Jewish, on Yom Kippur as well), when we celebrate having been transported back to our clean state, we tap into this paradigm. In the Jewish liturgy, during the mussaf prayer, we read the stirring prayer unesana tokef, which makes reference to a “still, small voice”--likely the “soft, murmuring sound” of the following verse:

"And lo, the L-rd passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering bricks by the power of the L-rd; but the L-rd was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the L-rd was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake—fire; but the L-rd was not in the fire. After the fire—a soft murmuring sound [still, thin sound]." (1 Kings 19:11)

What is this sound? It is the voice of kedusha, of holiness, also referred to as the kol Yaakov, the “voice of Jacob”. Rabbi Noson Sternhartz, of blessed memory, a disciple of Rebbe Nachman, explains that what must be accomplished in this world is to intensify the “voice of Jacob” above the “voice of Esau”, the voice of the Other Side (the counterpart to holiness), or more precisely, to suppress the voice of the Other Side, so that we can hear the voice of holiness. Repentance enables us to train our ears in the direction of holiness, of connection to G-d, to the things that truly matter.

This is the third concept in the triad, the concept of hearing. When G-d split the Red Sea, it had the effect of resetting the world back to an unadulterated state, a state of readiness and anticipation. In the quietude of a new beginning, it was possible to hear the “still, small voice”, without interference. This is what enabled Jethro to hear.

May we all be blessed to hear the voice of holiness in our own lives, reverberating throughout the world.

By Rabbi Tani Burton


Tani Burton is a life coach, psychotherapist, author and educator living in Jerusalem, Israel. A special interest of his is the Torah's universal message for humanity, its prescription for right living, a close and personal relationship with G-d, and the opportunities we all have to make the world a better place.

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