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 (Bereishis 46:29). Rashi, quoting the midrash, explains that as Yaakov embraced Yosef for the first time in twenty-two years, he was saying kriyas 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 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 will eventually come (Bereishis 49:1). However, as the Gemara (Pesachim 56a) explains, at that very 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 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 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.
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” (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, “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). 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. 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.
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’s 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 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.