Seeing vs. Hearing: Learning to Navigate a Darkened World

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man holds his hand near ear and listens carefully alphabet letters flying in isolated on gray wall background

There’s a story of a man who visited his friend in a far-off town once a year. When he arrived that year, he was shocked to find an immensely tall 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 few months ago, and this tree wasn’t here. What happened? Did you have someone plant a fully-grown tree into your yard?” His friend smiled and explained, “This is the Chinese bamboo tree, a very rare and special kind of tree. Once you plant it, for the next five years you must water it every single day and make sure it has adequate sunlight. If you miss even a single day, the seed will die. But here’s the catch: the seed doesn’t grow for those five years, not even a single inch. 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 this week’s parsha, Vayigash, Yaakov is finally reunited with Yosef after twenty-two years of separation. In what can only be imagined as an emotionally climactic scene, Yaakov embraces Yosef, sobbing on his neck. Rashi brings down the midrash that, as Yaakov embraced Yosef for the first time in twenty-two years, he was saying kriyas shema (Bereishis 46:29). What is the meaning of this? Why not wait until after this joyful and emotional reunion with his long-lost son to pray? The simple answer often mentioned is that Yaakov was overcome by intense emotion and wanted to channel this feeling towards Hashem through reciting kriyas shema. However, there may be something deeper at play.

 

This practice of reciting shema at seemingly inopportune moments appears once again in next week’s parsha. Before Yaakov’s death, he gathers his children to his bedside and attempts to tell them when and how mashiach will eventually come. However, as the Gemara (Pesachim 56a) explains, at that every moment, Yaakov lost access to his nevuah 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 of one of his children; perhaps one of his children was not tahor or unworthy of receiving this information. Once he realized this wasn’t the case, he thought that perhaps his children are 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.

 

Immediately, in order to relieve this concern, the shevatim 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. Yaakov then proclaimed out loud, “Baruch shem kivod malchuso li’olam va’ed”. While every part of this gemara requires explanation, the most striking question is this: how did the brothers assuage Yaakov’s concern by saying shema? How did this prove that there was no lack in their unity as a collective whole? In order to answer all of these questions, we will delve into the spiritual concepts of seeing and hearing.

 

The Spiritual Concept of Seeing and Hearing

 

The spiritual concept of seeing reflects the idea of observing something as it is, in a static state, lacking any movement. When you look at 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, however, reflects a process, an evolutionary progression, one of movement and parts. Hearing involves a movement of things, which then requires work, organization, and concentration. When you hear someone speak a sentence, you must collect all the pieces of sound together, and then reconstruct them into a connected picture within your mind. It requires you to recollect the words and unite them into one package of meaning. 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 only exists 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, because Hashem does not exist within time, so in that case, speech as well does 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” (Shmuel 1 15:4). This can’t mean that Shaul “heard” the nation before war; it means that Shaul “gathered” the nation before war to fight. 

 

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”. As the saying goes, “seeing is believing”- when you see something, it is far more convincing than hearing it. This is why legitimate witnesses must see an event with their own eyes, hearing isn’t enough (or at least doesn’t carry the same weight). [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.] Furthermore, seeing occurs outside of you; in other words, your experience of sight is perceived as something external, and not 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, whereby 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 head. 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 always come out with completely different perceptions. This is because, during the reconstruction phase, we project our own world views 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. 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.

 

Answering Our Original Questions

 

Now we can 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 because he said shema! Shema represents the concept of process, of hearing in the darkness, of recognizing that one day, all the pieces will come together. Yaakov’s saying shema was his way of expressing his recognition that all the years of darkness and pain were ultimately leading towards this moment of revelation, of clarity.

 

We can also explain why the brothers respond to Yaakov by proclaiming shema. When Yaakov lost his nevuah, and was unable to reveal how mashiach will come at the end of days, he was gripped with fear, worried that perhaps his inability to share his prophetic knowledge was due to a spiritual deficiency of one of his children; perhaps one of his children was not tahor or unworthy of receiving this information. Once he realized this was not the case, he thought that perhaps his children are 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.

 

Immediately, in order to relieve this concern, the shevatim 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? It’s because shema represents the idea of creating oneness out of disparate parts, just like listening means to gather all the different words and pieces into a collective whole. The brothers were proclaiming, “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, Yaakov realized that it wasn’t due to a lack in his children’s oneness, but rather that Hashem didn’t want to reveal these secrets at this point in time.

 

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 “shema journey.”

Our history is like the Chinese Bamboo Tree; this unique tree requires a long period of existing within the darkness, accomplishing what seems to be very little, lost in the void. Years go by, and all its effort seems to be in vein. Only with faith, belief, and undying trust can it get through this phase of darkness, and skyrocket towards its true destination. Only then, once it arrives at its towering height, will we realize 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 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.

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