In Parshas VaYigash, Yaakov is finally reunited with Yosef after 22 years of separation. In what can only be imagined as an intensely emotional scene, Yaakov embraces Yosef, sobbing on his neck (B’reishis 46:29). Rashi, quoting the midrash, explains that as Yaakov embraced Yosef for the first time in 22 years, he was saying k’rias Sh’ma. 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 k’rias Sh’ma. However, there may be a deeper layer here, as well.
This practice of reciting Sh’ma at seemingly puzzling moments occurs once again in Parshas VaY’chi. Before Yaakov’s death, he gathers his children to his bedside and attempts to tell them when and how Mashiach will eventually come (B’reishis 49:1). However, as the Gemara (P’sachim 56a) explains, at that very moment, Yaakov lost access to his n’vuah 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 Sh’vatim declared in unison, “Sh’ma Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad.” Only after this declaration did Yaakov understand that his inability to see the keitz ha’yamim (the days of days) 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 sheim k’vod malchuso l’olam va’ed.”
What is the meaning of this exchange? How did the brothers assuage Yaakov’s concerns by reciting Sh’ma? 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.
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 that 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 “sh’ma,” which means “listen,” also means to “gather,” as we see when the pasuk says “VaY’shama 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 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 (“r’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). 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 him or her to be inside of you, but rather to be outside of you. Hearing, on the other hand, is something that 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 his own picture inside of his 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. 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.
Sh’ma: Hearing Within the Darkness
We can now return to our original questions. Why did Yaakov recite Sh’ma 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 Sh’ma! Sh’ma represents the concept of process, of hearing in the darkness, of recognizing that one day, all the pieces will come together. By saying Sh’ma, 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.
This also explains why the brothers responded to Yaakov by proclaiming Sh’ma. To eliminate Yaakov’s concerns, they declared in unison, “Sh’ma 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 Sh’vatim eliminate Yaakov’s concern by reciting Sh’ma?
Sh’ma represents the idea of creating oneness out of disparate parts, just as 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 12 independent and separate sh’vatim, unable to unite and harmonize as a single, cohesive unit.
The brothers therefore proclaimed, “Sh’ma Yisrael” – we, the 12 sh’vatim of klal Yisrael, are united as a collective whole; “Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad,” Just as 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 n’vuah 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 Sh’vatim 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 “Sh’ma Yisrael.”
The Jewish Story
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.
Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker, writer, and coach who has lectured internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities on topics of Jewish Thought and Jewish Medical Ethics. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy (ShmuelReichman.com), the transformative online course that is revolutionizing how we engage in self-development. You can find more inspirational lectures, videos, and articles from Shmuel on his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.