Yisro (Jethro), the high priest of the land of Midian, and father-in-law to Moses, heard something. Actually, the entire world heard the same thing. But there was a big difference between the two:
The commentator Rashi (1040-1105) says that Yisro heard about the incredible splitting of the sea during which the entire Egyptian army was destroyed (and also a subsequent war and victory against the nation of Amalek).
Everyone else heard this news, too. But when everyone else heard the news, they reacted in ways to which we might relate. Perhaps they complained to the air about the Anti-Chamitism (Egypt was descended from Noah’s son Cham, whereas the Jews were from the son Shem); or maybe they yawned and moved on with life; or maybe they might have been awed by the power of G-d who was able to destroy the Egyptian nation, and decided that this was an incredibly important message – but the message was for the Egyptians and the Jews and not for them.
Yisro was different. He heard the same thing everyone else did, but then said that he himself had to change. The message of the sea splitting, the Jews crossing safely and the Egyptians drowning, was seemingly not meant for Yisro. No matter. Yisro took the message to heart and travelled through the desert until he found the Jewish nation and announced that he wanted to be part of it.
I heard a story from Rabbi Paysach Krohn about an Israeli taxi driver who is hired by a respectable-looking Rabbi. The driver says, “Rabbi, I have an incredible story to tell you. After me and my friends finished our army service, we went travelling and went on a guided safari in Africa. After a few days on the safari, one of my friends got up early and decided to leave the camp to walk around on his own, thinking it was safe for him to do so – even though we discouraged him. Not more than a minute later we heard screams, and we ran to discover a massive snake wrapped around our friend, crushing him to death. We threw things at the snake, but he only crushed our friend more. None of us were religious, but we all knew how to say ‘Shema Yisrael’ – and despairing that this might be end of our friend we yelled at him to say ‘Shema’!! Our friend belted out ‘Shema Yisrael – Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is one’ and almost instantly the snake loosened its grip on our friend and slithered away.” “And then what happened?” asked the Rabbi. “Our friend came back to the camp and immediately put on a Tallit and Tefillin and when he returned to Israel became religious.” “And did you also become religious?” asked the Rabbi. “Rabbi, the snake was wrapped around my friend, not around me!!” answered the driver.
But compare this story to one I heard from Rabbi Yisroel Brog as he walked with his grandfather, Rabbi Avigdor Millier Z”L: Rabbi Miller asked his young grandson as they walked along the deserted streets of Brooklyn before sunrise if he saw the man ahead of them. “Grandpa, I don’t see anyone on the streets here.” said Yisroel. “No, look ahead, two blocks. There is a man walking with a stick. He is blind. G-d put him there for me to see him so that I could be reminded to thank G-d for my eyes!”
When we hear or see something, we are to take it as a personal message from G-d Himself. Yisro heard about an incident that happened to another nation, yet he took it as a personal message from G-d that it was time to change his life.
Do we do that? Are we like the Israeli soldier on safari who sees a miracle happen to his friend, but because it didn’t happen to him he ignored the message? Or are we like Rabbi Miller and Yisro, who saw things that had nothing to do with themselves but still took the message personally.
Whenever something happens in your life, whether you see a disabled person on the sidewalk, or you hear about Jews being taken hostage in a synagogue, that is a message for YOU. Don’t ignore the messages because they seem to be aimed at someone else. If you are aware of the message, then it is for YOU, and you should try to be like Yisro and act!