When Yaakov Avinu 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 (Bereishis 46:29). Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains that as Yaakov embraced Yosef for the first time in 22 years, he was saying k’rias Shema. 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 toward Hashem through reciting k’rias Shema. However, there may be a deeper layer here as well.
This practice of reciting Shema at seemingly puzzling moments occurs once again in Parashas 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 (Bereishis 49:1). However, as the Gemara 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” (Pesachim 56a).
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?
The Spiritual Concepts of Seeing and Hearing
The spiritual concept of seeing is the idea of observing something as it is, i.e., 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; 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 reconstruct them into a connected picture in your mind so that you can grasp their meaning. (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.”)
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 remember 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 too 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 verse says “Va’yeshama Shaul es ha’am” (Shmuel I 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 seeing and hearing. Seeing is more reliable, while hearing is always questionable. This is why the Hebrew word for seeing, “re’iyah,” shares the same root with the word for proof, “raayah.” 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 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 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 internally; 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 your head. This is why hearing is so subjective – because each person is reconstructing their own picture inside their own mind. This is 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 to their inner meaning. You might think a word refers to one thing, while the speaker uses that word for something else. 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.
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 toward this moment of revelation and clarity (Maharal, Gur Aryeh, Bereishis 46:29).
This also explains why the brothers responded to Yaakov by proclaiming Shema. To eliminate Yaakov’s concern, 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 was rather because Hashem did not want to reveal these secrets at that 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 collective whole. 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 that time.
The remaining 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 toward Mashiach, without knowing when, where, or how it will take place; to embark on a genuine journey of “Shema Yisrael.”