Spiritual Tools: Rav Yaakov Chaim Yoffen: Learning to “Hear”
The 19th of Adar is the Yahrtzeit of Rav Yaakov Chaim (ben Avraham) Jofen (Yaffen), Rosh Yeshiva of Beis Yosef Novardok, his father’s father-in-law was the Alter of Novardok (1917-2003).
Following his bar mitzvah he studied at Baranovich for one year under Rav Dovid
Rapaport, and then for a year under Rav Elchonon Wasserman. During these two
years he lived with his uncle, the mashgiach, Rav Yisrael Yaakov Lubchansky.
Later he returned to Bialystok to study under his father at Yeshivas Beis Yosef.
In 1941, he arrived in the U.S. with his father. He began giving shiurim that
year at Yeshivas Beis Yosef, and continued to do so for the next sixty years.
Rabbi Simai taught: “When Israel said We shall do before We shall hear, 600,000 angels descended onto each Jew and crowned him with two crowns; 14 we shall do and one for we shall hear (Shabbat 89b). The surface understanding of this would be that the two crowns were exactly the same. This is puzzling; after all, the acceptance of the Commandments appears to be more praiseworthy than learning about them. You would think that “hearing” is secondary and was mentioned only to contrast and highlight the faithfulness of Israel, who accepted the Torah before learning its contents.
The ways of God are hidden from us. We do not understand the greatness of “hearing.” We do not appreciate that, in truth, it is “hearing” which prepares a person to become a vessel worthy of receiving Divine abundance.
“And He led you 40 years in the desert, and God did not give youth the heart to know (Deuteronomy 29:3).” Rabba said: “From here we derive that a man does not understand his master’s view till the passage of 40 years (Avodah Zara 5b).” Rav Yisrael Salanter explained that one should not become discouraged if one does not sense in your change, despite the study of Mussar (Ohr Yisrael 30:13).
How did Rabbi Akiva begin? He was 40 years old and had not studied Torah. He was standing at the entrance of a well. He asked: “how did this stone becomes so worn out?” People answered him, “The water that continuously fell on it wore it away.” He immediately reasoned: “If soft water can etch out this hard rock, then the words of Torah, which are as hard as iron, can surely shape my heart, which is merely flesh and blood. Immediately he turned to the study of Torah (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 6).
When Menashe, Kingdom of Israel, saw the suffering that had come upon him he said: “I remember that when I was a child, my father made me read this verse: “in your trouble these things will come upon you at the end of days and you will return to God, your Lord, and hearken to His voice.” The Angels were then shutting the portals of Heaven before him so that his prayers would not rise. Said the Only One, Blessed is He, to Menashe: “If I do not accept your prayer, I will be closing the door before others who wish to repent.” So He made for him in a special passageway under the Throne of Glory and accepted his prayer (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 162).
Do you see the power of “hearing?” Through it, even a great sinner like Menashe was able to return to God in repentance (Sanhedrin 101b).
Rabbi Akiva, in his utility, feared that the weight of the many previous years without Torah would prevent him from overcoming his inclinations and conquering his “nature,” his long standing habits. The waters of the well allowed him to “hear” and he immediately turned this lesson into action. We must seize the spark of the insight that falls in front of us and advance with it on the way that we must travel.