Jacob felt that his end was drawing near. He called his twelve sons together and announced that he wanted to bless them all.1 Calling each one by name, he blessed them. The names of Jacob’s sons were obviously significant, like every word of the Torah. Chassidic teachings emphasize not only the historical reasons for the names, but also the psychological and spiritual reasons. The twelve sons of Jacob are the historical ancestors of the Jewish people, and they also represent different spiritual aspects within us.

The name Reuben, the first son of Jacob, relates to the verb ra’ah, “to see.” The name Shimon (Simeon), the second son, relates to the verb shama, “to hear.”

“Seeing” and “hearing” are two different levels at which it is possible to relate to G‑d. One is a highly tuned level of awareness of G‑d that can be compared to sight. When we see something, the experience is unambiguous and definite. No amount of argument will convince a person that he did not see something when he did. Further, when we look at a scene we are able to absorb many details all at once. The name Reuben expresses certainty and immediacy in our awareness of G‑d.

On the other hand there is also Simeon, the path expressed by the second son. This is the path of “hearing.” The perception of G‑d is at a lower level of awareness. It is less distinct, less clear. You can also only hear one thing at a time. Too many sounds together, unless they form a definite harmony, are simply confusing. A scene which you hear described is not as vivid nor as detailed as one actually observed by oneself. The level of hearing is one on which a person has some awareness of G‑dliness, but in a way which is less distinct, clear and powerful than that of seeing.

As explained in chassidic teachings, the effect of seeing is love—intense love of G‑d, a tremendous yearning to come close to the divine and to dedicate one’s life to spiritual goals. This is an exalted level. Ultimately, it is the attainment of a profoundly righteous person, a tzaddik. We speak of significant leaders as having “vision.” They see clearly before them their goal, whatever it might be. A great Jewish leader has a clear perception of the path of Torah, the guidance which G‑d gives to the Jewish people and humanity.

Others, whose experience of G‑d is rather on the level of hearing, are conscious of the divine and seek to relate to G‑dliness. Chassidic teachings explain that their awareness generally takes the form of awe. They recognize the infinity of G‑d, and wish to obey Him. They are strongly aware of the tendencies within a person to lead him or her away from the path of connection with G‑d. They struggle within themselves, trying to follow the teaching they have “heard,” which means trying to remember that this is the true path, and not the confusing and conflicting “noise” from the world around them . . .

The two aspects of “seeing” and “hearing” are potentially within each of us as levels of relationship with G‑d which we can develop through Torah study, thoughtful prayer and observance of the commandments. Through each of these modes we can deepen our relationship with G‑d, and make our relationship with other people and with life more meaningful. We will come to express not only the meanings of the names Reuben and Simeon, but also those of other sons of Jacob, such as Levi, who represents bonding2 with the divine, and Judah, who expresses thankfulness3 and utter dedication. Through seeking to reveal these qualities within us, we live up to being a true son or daughter of Jacob.4