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Hearing Within the Darkness (Parshas Vayigash)

parsha sefer bereishis Dec 23, 2020


There was once a man who visited his friend in a far-off town once a year. When he arrived one year, he was shocked to find a towering tree in his friend's backyard, standing well over sixty feet tall. Most puzzling, though, was the fact that just last year there had been no trace of such a tree, not as much as a small sapling. Perplexed, he asked his friend, "I was here just a year ago, and this tree wasn't here. What happened? Did you plant a fully-grown tree in your yard?” His friend smiled and explained, "This is the Chinese bamboo tree, a very rare and unique tree. Once you plant it, you must water it every day and make sure it has adequate sunlight. If you miss even a single day, the seed will die. For five whole years, you must tend to the plant diligently, without seeing a single inch of growth for your efforts. But once you’ve cared for the seed for five years, the tree grows at an accelerated rate, expanding exponentially over the course of just a few months to a staggering height of over sixty feet." The man was shocked to hear this, and as he and his friend walked away, he began to ponder the meaning of this strange tree. He eventually asked out loud, “Does the tree take five months to grow? Or five years?”


What is the Deeper Meaning of Shema?


In Parshas Vayigash, Yaakov is finally reunited with Yosef after twenty-two years of separation. In what can only be imagined as an intensely emotional scene, Yaakov embraces Yosef, sobbing on his neck.[1] Rashi, quoting the midrash, explains that as Yaakov embraced Yosef for the first time in twenty-two years, he was saying kriyas shema.[2] What is the meaning of this? Why not wait until after this joyful and emotional reunion with his long-lost son to pray? The answer often given is that Yaakov was overcome by intense emotion and wanted to channel this emotion towards Hashem through reciting kriyas shema. However, there may be a deeper layer here as well.


This practice of reciting shema at seemingly puzzling moments occurs once again in Parshas Vayechi. Before Yaakov’s death, he gathers his children to his bedside and attempts to tell them when and how mashiach (the ultimate redemption) will eventually come.[3] However, as the Gemara[4] explains, at that very moment, Yaakov lost access to his nevuah (prophecy) and was unable to reveal this secret. When this happened, he was gripped by fear, worried that perhaps his inability to share his prophetic knowledge was due to a spiritual deficiency in one of his children; perhaps one of his children was not worthy of receiving this information.


Immediately, in order to relieve this concern, the shevatim (tribes) declared in unison, "Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad". Only after this declaration did Yaakov understand that his inability to see the keitz ha’yamim (the days of mashiach) was not due to a lack in his children, but rather because Hashem did not want to reveal these secrets at this point in time. Yaakov then proclaimed out loud, "Baruch shem kevod malchuso le'olam va'ed".


What is the meaning of this exchange? How did the brothers assuage Yaakov's concerns by reciting shema? How did this prove that there was no lack in his children? In order to address these questions, let us delve into the spiritual concepts of seeing and hearing.


The Spiritual Concepts of Seeing and Hearing


The spiritual concept of seeing is the idea of observing something as it is, in a completely static state, lacking any movement. When you see a picture, you grasp the entire image instantaneously. There's no process of constructing or building the picture in your mind, everything is just there, at once, without any effort. 


The spiritual concept of hearing, in comparison, reflects a process, a movement through time, an evolutionary progression, one of effort, concentration, and organization of parts. When you hear someone else speaking, you must collect all the pieces of sound together and then reconstruct them into a connected picture within your mind, so that you can grasp their meaning.[5]


Hearing is a process of creating oneness out of fragmented parts. When you listen to someone talk, one word by itself lacks meaning and is forgotten. If you hear another few words, it still means nothing, and fades to memory. The words from the past exist in a pool of knowledge and memory in your mind. You wait until the end of the sentence to give shape and meaning to the pool of words which created that sentence. When you finally finish listening to the sentence, you must then reach back into your memory and look at the sentence as a whole; only then does it gain meaning and clarity.


Speech exists only within time, where there's a sequence of one word after another. If someone spoke all the words at once, you wouldn't hear anything; it would just be noise. [At Matan Torah, Hashem originally spoke all ten dibros at once. This is because Hashem does not exist within time, so in that case, speech as well did not exist within time.] Thus, listening entails gathering disparate pieces into oneness. This is why the word shema, which means “listen”, also means to “gather”, as we see when the pasuk says "Va'Yishama Shaul es ha'am”.[6] This can’t mean that Shaul “heard” the nation before war; it means that Shaul “gathered” the nation before war to prepare for battle.


Clarity and Confusion


In addition to “static versus process” and “clarity versus creating clarity,” there are several other fundamental differences between the concepts of seeing and hearing. Seeing is more reliable, while hearing is always questionable. This is why the Hebrew word for seeing, “ri'iyah”, shares the same root with the word for proof, “ra'ayah”. Witnesses must see an event with their own eyes, hearing isn't enough (or at least doesn’t carry the same weight).[7] As the saying goes, "seeing is believing"- when you see something, it is far more convincing than hearing about it. Furthermore, seeing occurs outside of oneself; in other words, your experience of sight is perceived as something external, not something occurring within you. If you look at someone, you don't perceive them to be inside of you, but rather to be outside of you. Hearing, on the other hand, is something which you perceive as taking place within you. Let’s try to explain this.


Hearing is a very difficult process; it requires memory and reconstruction of many different parts. It takes place within you; you have to put the words together yourself, one small fragment at a time. When you're listening, words are received in small pieces, and you need to reconstruct it inside your head. You recall the fragments and create the picture or sentence inside of your head. This is why hearing is so subjective, because each person is reconstructing their own picture inside their own mind. This is of course why no two people ever hear the same thing. If you've ever been to a shiur or lecture with a friend, you know that you usually come out with different perceptions. This is because, during the reconstruction phase, we project our own worldviews and perceptions onto the words that we’re trying to reconstruct. We therefore end up reconstructing what we think the person said or meant, instead of reconstructing what was actually meant by the original speaker.[8] This is also why so many mistakes can occur during the learning process. The goal of hearing and learning is to get past the words that are being spoken and get back to the inner meaning behind them. You might think a word refers to one thing, while the speaker uses that very same word for something else entirely. Genuine listening requires negating our own ego and ownership over truth and understanding what the speaker truly means. This is true of all forms of communication, especially in relationships.


Olam Habah vs. Olam Hazeh


The relationship between seeing and hearing reflects the relationship between Olam Habah (The World to Come), and Olam Hazeh (this world). This world is a place of movement and process, of change and growth, which reflects the process of hearing. In this world you get to choose who you'll become. Olam Habah is the place of being, where you experience the ecstasy of everything you've built, and thus reflects the concept of seeing, static and unmoving. No longer can you move or become, but instead, you enjoy everything you created during your life in Olam Hazeh.[9]


Weekday vs. Shabbos


Another manifestation of this principle is the relationship between Shabbos and the six days of the week. Throughout the week we build and grow, whereas on Shabbos we rest from creative activity, experiencing what we’ve accomplished during the week[10]. This is why the Gemara[11] says that Shabbos is “me'ein Olam Habah,” a taste of The World to Come. Just as Olam Habah is the place where we enjoy everything we’ve built in this world, Shabbos is the time where we enjoy everything we’ve built during the week.[12]


This explains a seemingly strange pasuk regarding Matan Torah (the receiving of the Torah). The pasuk says that when Hashem gave us the Torah, "ro'im es ha'kolos", we "saw the sounds".[13] Of course, we don’t see sounds, we hear them.What, then, does this mean?


This world - Olam Hazeh - is a place of movement, a place of “hearing”. In this world, we build our “selves”: we learn, we work, we grow, we become. The spiritual realm - Olam Habah - is devoid of movement. It is a place of static perfection, of “seeing”, of being. It is in Olam Habah that we experience everything that we built and actualized while in Olam Hazeh.[14] Matan Torah was an experience of Olam Habah taking place within this world. At Matan Torah, we transcended the physical world of time and space; we all became prophets and experienced the infinite spiritual nature of reality. In such a dimension, there is no hearing or movement, only sight. Therefore, sounds weren't heard, they were seen. Movement became static, becoming became being.


Two Stages of History: Seeing vs. Hearing


The relationship between hearing and seeing also explains the difference between the two stages of Jewish history. The first stage lasted until the time of Chanukah, the second stage spans from Chanukah until today. The first stage was a time of nevuah and miracles, a time of “seeing”. Hashem openly revealed Himself to the world and was clearly known to all. This is why a Navi was called a chozeh, a seer; it was a time where all people, not only the nevi'im, saw Hashem with absolute clarity. But right around the time of Purim and Chanukah, Nevuah ended, and the world fell into darkness. What was the meaning behind this transition?


The first stage was a stage of seeing, where everything was clear and easy. Now, however, we live in a world of darkness, a world of hearing, where we need to choose to see past the surface, connect the pieces together, and create that clarity ourselves. There were no open miracles on Purim, we had to connect the pieces together ourselves, and see the miraculous within the natural, to see Hashem within the world we live in. In the light, you can see; in the dark, all you can do is hear. You must pick up on every hint of clarity you receive, put the pieces together, and form the image in your mind, while still walking in darkness.


When you see something, you experience it all at once, there's no process, no surprises. When hearing, when taking a journey, there can be a long winding path, twisting and turning in all directions, leading you on a seemingly endless quest. Then, at the very last moment, there can be a sudden revelation which retroactively changes your perspective on the entire journey! Like a twist ending in a great story, the last turn can change the way you perceive the entire quest. This is the nature of the final ge’ulah (redemption). When mashiach (messiah) comes, we will suddenly see how all of history was leading us towards our ultimate destination. This is why the end of days is compared to laughter: one laughs when there is a sudden change, and the destination one thought they were heading towards suddenly shifts into something completely unexpected.[15]


Personal Megillah: “Hearing” in Our Own Lives


The same is true in our own lives. Sometimes, only by looking back and putting all the disparate pieces together, can we finally see the beauty and hashgacha (providence) in events that occurred throughout our lives. Any individual moment of your life might may seem meaningless, but held in context of your entire life, this moment suddenly shines with infinite brilliance, as it’s seen as integral and deeply meaningful, it’s true purpose and meaning becoming clearer. As we’ve mentioned before, this why the Ba'alei Machshava suggest writing your own personal “megillah”, keeping an account of events, experiences, and choices that occur throughout your life. Megilas Esther contains no open miracle, but when you put all the pieces of the puzzle together, and read them in order, you clearly see the Yad Hashem (Hand of God), how all the seemingly random events fit together so perfectly to create the hidden miracle of Purim. Megillah shares the same root as the words ligalgel (to roll) and migaleh (to reveal). When we roll through the scroll of the megilah, we reveal the presence and hashgachah of Hashem.


The same is true for our own personal story. Each individual event or experience may seem insignificant and happenstance, but if we put all the pieces together, connecting the dots between the seemingly random events, we begin to see the beauty manifest in our own personal megillah. We can suddenly see the turning points in our lives; we retroactively perceive the life-changing decisions and events that until now seemed meaningless and random. Whether it was choosing a specific school, meeting a friend or spouse at a specific time, or visiting a certain place when we did, our past becomes a masterpiece, ready for us to admire and appreciate.


Torah Shebiksav vs. Torah Sheba’al Peh


We can take the concept of “hearing” and “process” a step further and apply this to Torah as well.[16]

  • Torah Shebiksav, the written Torah, represents seeing; you learn it by seeing the text, not by hearing it orally. It's static and complete, nothing will ever be added to it.
  • Torah Sheba'al Peh, the Oral Torah, is learned through hearing; you listen to your rebbeim (teachers). It was originally transmitted orally alone, and only later was it actually written down to ensure that the mesorah (tradition) would not get lost. But Chazal did so in such a way that ensured the need for a rebbe-talmid relationship. In other words, you can't read the Gemara, you must learn it, to break it down, question, and fight tooth and nail in order to understand every step of the shaklah vi'taryah (back and forth).


Torah Sheba'al Peh is the epitome of hearing.[17] If you've ever learned Gemara, you'll notice that every time you spend two pages proving a certain idea, you then reject it; you then spend two more pages building up another idea, and then reject this as well. What's the meaning of this? No science textbook in the world would ever teach in such a way!


But the answer is profound. Gemara is a process of hearing, a thesis, followed by an antithesis (rejection), followed by a synthesis (solution), and then repeat (chesed, din, and tiferes). Our job in this world is to take the shards of truth which we have, and try to build up an understanding of the truth. We introduce a havah aminah (assumption), and then break it down in order to develop a better one. We then build an updated havah aminah, before breaking that one down as well. The search for truth requires a constant process of breaking down and rebuilding, to get an even better understanding the truth. You have a theory, you break it down and reject it, until you create a better and improved theory; then you repeat.


But the greatest example of our hearing comes in our unique relationship with Torah Sheba'al Peh. Unlike Torah Shebiksav, which is complete and static, Torah Sheba'al Peh is continuously developing and growing. Every Jew has the ability to add their own legitimate novel chiddushim and insights to the mesorah of Torah Sheba'al Peh.


This is why Torah Sheba'al Peh itself begins with the discussion of shema- the word for hearing! The very first Mishna in Brachos[18] discusses when one should say shema. Furthermore, this Mishna discusses saying shema at night. This is because the entire theme of Torah Sheba'al Peh is about hearing, about listening in the dark, putting all the pieces together, and creating clarity amidst chaos and confusion.


Shema: Hearing Within the Darkness


We can now return to our original questions. Why did Yaakov recite shema as he embraced Yosef, instead of fully experiencing this emotional reunion? The answer is that he did fully experience this emotional reunion, precisely through his recitation of shema! Shema represents the concept of process, of hearing in the darkness, of recognizing that one day, all the pieces will come together. By saying shema, Yaakov was expressing his recognition that all the years of darkness and pain that he experienced were ultimately leading towards this moment of revelation and clarity.[19]


This also explains why the brothers responded to Yaakov by proclaiming shema. To eliminate Yaakov’s concerns, they declared in unison, "Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad". Only after this declaration did Yaakov understand that his inability to see the keitz ha’yamim was not due to a lack in his children, but rather because Hashem did not want to reveal these secrets at this point in time. How did the shevatim eliminate Yaakov's concern by reciting shema?


Shema represents the idea of creating oneness out of disparate parts, just like listening involves gathering all the different words and pieces into a collective whole. At first, Yaakov was concerned that there was a lack in his children as individuals, but this concern was alleviated once he was assured of their spiritual purity. However, even once it was clear to Yaakov that there was no lack in his children, he thought that perhaps they were only pure as individuals, but not as a unit, as a collective whole. In other words, maybe they were twelve independent and separate shevatim, unable to unite and harmonize as a single, cohesive unit.


The brothers therefore proclaimed, "Shema Yisrael”, we, the twelve shevatim of Klal Yisrael, are united as a collective whole; “Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad,” Just like Hashem is absolute oneness, so too we are a single nation, a collective whole. With this, it became clear that Yaakov did not lose his nevuah due to a lack in his children as individuals or due to a lack in their unity, but rather that Hashem had chosen not to reveal these secrets at this point in time. The question is, why did Hashem not want the shevatim to know the timing and details of mashiach?


Hashem did not want to eliminate our free will; He wanted us to live in a world where we have to listen! To hear in the darkness, to build towards mashiach, without knowing when, where, or how it will take place; to embark on a genuine journey of “Shema Yisrael.”


The Jewish Bamboo HisToREE


Our history is like the Chinese Bamboo Tree. This unique tree spends years in darkness, accomplishing what seems to be very little, lost in the void. Years go by, and all investment towards its growth appears to be in vein. Only with belief and undying trust can one get through this phase of darkness. Then, when all hope seems lost, it suddenly skyrockets towards its true, towering height, out in the light, for all to see. Only then, once it arrives at its full figure, does everything become clear. At that moment, one realizes that it didn’t take five months for the tree to grow, it took over five years.


The same is true with Klal Yisrael; one day, we will see how centuries of tragedy were actually bringing us closer and closer to our ultimate destination. The same is true for each of us; we must be willing to listen in the dark, to see past the surface. We must ride the waves of hardship and challenge, recognizing them as opportunities to grow, not only as burdens. One day, we will see clearly, we will recognize the why behind every what. Until then, we must learn to listen, to believe, to have faith. For only one who listens will one day truly see.


[1] Bereishis 46:29.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bereishis 49:1.

[4] Pesachim 56a.

[5] When you read a sentence or witness a process, you are experiencing the spiritual concept of “hearing,” despite the fact that you are using your “eyes”.

[6] Shmuel 1 15:4.

[7] It’s important to state that even seeing is subjective, and one’s physical perception does not reveal a thing’s true nature. However, relative to hearing, seeing is more objective. For more on the topic of subjectivity and the limitations of physical perception, see chapter on Parshas Chukas, section: “Intellect Provides Limited Knowledge.”

[8] Very often, we project our own paradigms and preconceptions onto a speaker’s words, instead of understanding what they truly mean. Instead of learning something new, we simply reinforce our own beliefs and views, hearing them “through the words of the speaker”. Genuine learning is only possible when we negate our ego and open ourselves up, creating room within ourselves for new ideas to enter. This requires one to be vulnerable and honest enough to give up their current view for a new view, if the new view is true (or closer to the truth than one’s current view). This requires first identifying a teacher who fully respect, and whose ideas and views are worthy of replacing and expanding our current views.

Reflection on this principle will reveal that genuine learning is a difficult, but powerful ideal. It is rare to find a teacher who you value and respect enough to dedicate countless hours to mastering what they really mean and attempt to rebuild their entire inner worldview. But when you find that person, whatever you do, treasure every word they say.

[9] In truth, there is movement and process in Olam Habah as well, albeit, a very different type; it is a growth based on expanding everything you began building during your lifetime.

[10] And more generally, where we experience the person we’ve become so far after a lifetime of working on ourselves.

[11] Brachos 57b.

[12] For more on this topic and the deeper ideas of Shabbos, see chapter on Parshas Vayakhel.

[13] Shemos 20:15.

[14] For a more extensive explanation of the relationship between Olam Hazeh and Olam Habah, see chapter on Parshas Vayakhel.

[15] Yitzchak’s name means “laughter” and he is associated with mashiach. His birth should have been an impossibility, as his mother, Sarah Imeinu, was barren. When Avraham and Sarah heard the news of Yitzchak’s future birth, they both laughed, as this news was the complete opposite of their natural expectations.

The story of Yosef and the brothers is another example of this spiritual concept. Yosef puts the brothers through trials and tribulations, causing the brothers tremendous hardship and confusion. Yosef’s sudden revelation of “Ani Yosef, ha’od avi chai”- I am Yosef, is my father still alive, creates a sudden retroactive revelation, a twist that creates a subjective reframing of the entire story in the eyes of the brothers.

[16] For a fuller discussion of this topic, see chapter on Parshas Devarim.

[17] Rav Tzaddok, Pri Tzaddik, Lech Lecha- 8.

[18] Brachos 1:1.

[19] See Maharal- Gur Aryeh- Bereishis 46:29.


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