In Yiddish, that marvelously subtle language, there’s a fabulous word with no English counterpart: “derher.”

What does it mean?

Well, when you want to say that you “heard” something, you would use the word “her,” as in “ich her,” or “I hear what you’re saying.”

But when you want to say that you really got the message, that it truly came across, that it strongly resonated with you and has impacted you in a real way, there’s another word—“derher.”

A possible English equivalent can be to “hear to the end” or to “get it,” but that still falls short.

So there’s “her” and there’s “derher.” And they couldn’t be more different.

And in this game of life—in your personal and religious affairs—the name of the game is to derher. When you do that, you’re well on your way to victory.

A Curious Miracle

TheTen Commandments are featured a second time in the portion of Vaetchanan, as part of Moses’ farewell speech to his people. In his vivid description of that landmark event, he uses this unique phrase to depict G‑d’s voice:

G‑d spoke these words to your entire assembly at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the opaque darkness, with a great voice, which did not cease.1

What does it mean that the voice did not cease?

The Midrash2 cites a number of explanations, one of them suggesting that the voice had no echo. A sound that reverberated over the entire globe and should have produced a thunderous echo, miraculously did not.

But what’s the point of this miracle? I can appreciate that the experience at Sinai was majestic and awe-inspiring, with thunder and lightning contributing to an overwhelmingly sensory experience. But how does removing the echo contribute to the drama? Was G‑d just showing off His miracle-making capabilities?

In One Ear… and There to Stay

The point was this: to demonstrate that to truly receive the Torah, to live a life of conviction (or any life, for that matter), you must fully absorb G‑d’s word. None of this “in one ear and out the other” nonsense; it must stick to you and be absorbed like the oil stain you can’t get out of your favorite dress.

To explain.

Sound echoes when there is nothing to absorb it. Do you remember when you first moved into your house, the boxes still unopened, and the furniture still on the truck? If you had yelled into the bedroom, the sound would have bounced right off the wall and smacked you in the face, right? Well, that’s because there was nothing in the room to absorb it.

But once the room is filled with a couch, a bed, a dresser, linen, too much clothing, and empty shoe boxes you can’t remember why you have but still can’t bring yourself to throw out, the echo disappears. Why? Because there’s enough stuff around to absorb the sound, so it no longer bounces around.

And this is what happened at Sinai. The word of G‑d did indeed reverberate around the world, and the people listening internalized those words, absorbing them deep into their minds, hearts, and souls. They didn’t spit it back, or let it cruise along the highway of their mind and heart and off the nearest exit to oblivion. Instead, it was saturated into them, producing absolutely no echo.

They didn’t just “hear” the word of G‑d; they derhered it.

Derher for You, Derher for Me, Derher for Everyone

As it was at Sinai, it ought to be today, every day. To cross the bridge from “her” to “derher.”

Chassidim would sit around tables laden with spirits, herring, and crackers until the wee hours of the morning belaboring this one elusive idea: “We must derher!”

These were pious people who spent hours listening to lofty discourses from their Rebbe, hours in prayer, and even more hours in Torah study. Yet, they still fervently wished to master the art of derhering, for it’s entirely possible to listen to the perils of harboring even the slightest tinge of resentment for a fellow man, and then go home and be unable to look your neighbor who owes you $100 in the eye. It’s so easy to get stuck in the world of her and never graduate to derher.

You heard, you agreed, you resolved, yet you still can’t actually do it. There’s a universe between understanding something or even agreeing with something, and actually “getting” it to that deep, visceral degree that you cannot do otherwise.

And so, another heartfelt l’chaim, another round of niggunim, another encouraging slap on the back. “We must derher!”

People resolve to start exercising, quit smoking, stop texting and driving, and yet, weeks later, they haven’t put on their sneakers, they’re back to chain-smoking, and masterfully texting their friend, “I’ll be there in ten,” while doing 60 mph on the highway.

What happened? Did they change their mind? Are they no longer convinced that exercise is good for the body and the brain, or that smoking is harmful, and that texting while driving is tantamount to suicide?

No. That’s not the problem. They still her. But they have yet to derher. When they do, it’s easy-peasy from there.

The one who lost a loved one from texting and driving, the one who had a heart attack from smoking, they usually derher. They truly get just how dangerous these things are in their very gut. So, they simply abstain. They know not to play with fire.

But until then, it’s all “I hear.” To get to derher is one tough job.

But it’s eminently doable.

I can’t tell you the magic recipe that will push you to cross the ­her/derher bridge. Only you know what it will take. But I can tell you that there are definitely things in your life sitting on the edge of the “her” universe, and the moment you emphatically decide, “Enough! I’m going to finally mean it, not just talk about it,” well, then you’ll have crossed that elusive bridge.

Welcome to the derher universe.3