When Jacob was informed by his sons that Joseph was alive, he remarked: "It's too much. My son Joseph still lives. I shall go and see him before I die."

What is the importance of sight?

Commenting on this passage, Shem miShmuel singles out the aspect of sight – that is, that Jacob wanted to see his son. He compares this to Moses, who also wanted to see something at the end of his life – the land of Israel. Moses prayed to G‑d that he would be able to enter into Israel and see it. The question is twofold: What is the importance of sight? And why was it important for both Jacob and Moses to see just before they passed away?

The Kabbalists tell us that vision is an "outgoing" activity. It is not "incoming" light rays that enable us to see, but some form of spiritual energy emitted by the eyes that actualized our vision. The Chassidic masters further comment that by looking, we actually influence the object we see.

Jacob did not mean to just see Joseph – he wanted to have some form of effect upon him. The same is true of Moses – by looking at the land of Israel, even from afar, he was able to have a spiritual effect upon the entire land by imparting to it a higher spiritual energy.

Shem miShmuel explains that by looking at something, we form a bond with it. However, this only takes place when the object we are looking at is capable of bonding, or receiving the higher energy. Otherwise, what happens is disaster. When Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai emerged from a cave after twelve years of hiding from the Romans, he turned everything he looked at "into a pile of bones." This occurred because his spiritual energy was too high for the mundane world around him. Whenever the receiving object is not on a high enough level, it cannot survive the piercing gaze of the tzadik.

On the other hand, there are times when a gaze from Above is beneficial. When the Torah uses the word hashkifa mi'maon kodshecha ("Gaze from Your holy place Above"), Rashi explains that such a holy gaze is generally negative for the physical world, which can't tolerate such holiness. However, when used in the context of a poor person, whose heart is broken, the word has positive connotations. Because the poor are broken-hearted and ego-less, the gaze of G‑d or of the tzadik upon them has no detrimental effects, and uplifts and elevates the object.

...on the brink of passing away from this world, we are on our highest spiritual level.

At the end of life, when we stand on the brink of passing away from this world, we are on our highest spiritual level. We are, therefore, in the best position to give something of our spiritual self to others. That is why both Jacob and Moses wanted to perform this last act of "seeing" just before their own departure from this world. Each wanted to pass his own spiritual level on to his respective receptacle.

When Jacob learned that his son Joseph was still alive, he wished to see him personally, because by doing so he could impart his own wisdom and G‑dly connection to Joseph. Then, Joseph would be able to carry on in the tradition he had begun to receive when his life was tragically detailed by his sale into slavery. That is why it was so important to Jacob to see his son before he passed away.

Similarly, when Moses knew he was about to die, he requested to see the land, in order to impart to it some of his spiritual unity with the One Above – so that the land, in turn, should be able to impart this to us. Since he didn't actually enter the land of Israel, Moses was unable to impart the full essence of his spiritual level, but, by gazing upon it from afar, he was able to impart a ray of his high level of spirituality. That ray is enough for those of us who come to Israel today to feel the elevation of the land and strive for greater closeness to the One Above.

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[From "Inner Lights from Jerusalem" based on Shem miShmuel and other Chassidic and Kabalistic Sources, translated and presented by Rabbi David Sterne.]