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Home » Yitro

Yitro: The Vanishing Letters

Submitted by on February 1, 2010 – 2:29 amNo Comment | 2,615 views

Four Reviews

Our sages taught before appearing at Sinai, G-d reviewed the Ten Commandments four times. (1) What is the significance of these four reviews and what can we learn from this in terms of the vanishing letters??

Four Stages in Idea Development

  1. In the process of preparing for a lecture we tend to review our ideas on four basic levels. The first is purely cerebral; it is our knowledge of the core idea and its attendant questions, contradictions, resolutions, analyses and applications. When we reflect on the ideas at this core level we hardly formulate them into words. Instead, we scan the raw intellectual information and though we must formulate our ideas in some fashion even on this level, the cerebral words that we use are totally transparent to the ideas that they convey; this is the zone of vanishing letters. We are barely cognizant of them; our focus is entirely on the ideas.
  2. We then move to the point of self articulation. At this point we move beyond scanning the inner core of the ideas to articulating each aspect of the thesis. We articulate the ideas in our own minds exploring each element and layer, spelling out each question and answer and reviewing each application and consequence. At this level we distill the ideas into words. We are actually teaching ourselves; translating the concepts into structured sentences and laying them out in orderly fashion. At this point, our minds become orators, speaking to a most captive audience, ourselves. Letters and words become very much apparent at this point, but still the focus is primarily on the ideas that they convey. One manifestation of the word’s subservience at this point is that the idea can still be formulated in any number of words and sentences. This is because we are focused on the idea; the words serve merely as conveyors.
  3. From here we move to the third level – that of transmuting our mental notes into prepared lectures. At this point we are more concerned with the organization of ideas, structure of argument and selection of phraseology than we are with analyses and comprehension. We have moved from exploration of the thesis to its presentation and accordingly seek words that best express its subtlety and distill its complexities. To be sure, we are still concerned with the conveyance of ideas, but our primary focus shifts from the ideas to the words that convey them. This is a paradigm shift; from self to others, from clarity of understanding to clarity of communication. To accomplish this we must move from principles and ideas to sentence and syntax.
  4. We now arrive at the fourth and final stage; the actual oration. Standing at the lectern and facing the audience, our minds take a quantum leap outwards. No longer are we thinking of core ideas, comprehension, articulation, organization or even syntax; we are now focused on delivering our lecture with clarity. We strive to communicate and to be understood and to that end we focus almost exclusively on words; the vehicles that carry our thoughts to the audience. At this point, master orators reserve no mind space for ideas. They are consumed almost entirely with their prepared remarks. They focus on proper pronunciation and inflection, all the while feeling out their audience for the most convincing style and persuasive approach.

The Role of The Letter

When we consider these four stages and the evolution of letters from wholly transparent to wholly dominant, we realize that letters, despite being the most important vehicle of communication, are completely subservient and even redundant to the ideas that they convey.vanishing letters - innerstream In fact, even the audience, who receives the ideas entirely through the vehicle of words, will not require those words one they grasp the essence of the ideas. They will begin by replacing the phrases selected by the orator with ones more palatable to their own style of thought. They will then mature along the intellectual curve till they internalize the teaching on the cerebral level and dispense with the letters completely.

What happens to the letters at that point? Where are they stored? The answer is that they are not stored at all. The properties of shape and sound that ideas take on when they are communicated to others, fade away (metamorphose or coalesce into their ideas) when we think for ourselves. We do not consciously discard them; we simply mature in our thinking till we find ourselves addressing the concepts themselves rather than its letters. At first the letters become transparent to the ideas and then, as their transparency increases, their independent presence decreases, till they merge completely with the concepts that they convey.

The Jew at Sinai

We can now appreciate the lesson derived from the four reviews that G-d undertook at Sinai. By conveying the four stages of preparation G-d illustrated the relation of the letter to the idea, which serves as a metaphor for the relation of creation to its Creator. Just as the letter seems to stand for itself, nearly eclipsing the idea it is meant to convey, so do we, created human beings, appear to be separate entities, completely independent from our creator.

But just as the vanishing letter becomes subservient and absorbed within the idea as we mature along the intellectual curve, so do we. As we absorb the Torah and internalize its patterns of Divine thought, we recognize the truth of our existence as mere extensions of the Creator. The rate at which our sense of independence decreases is commensurate with the rate at which our consciousness of G-d increases. We mature along this spiritual curve until we can hardly distinguish between Creator and creation; at this point we coalesce into the Divine beings that, at essence, we truly are.

The dawning of this realization was achieved at Sinai. The culmination of this realization awaits us with the coming of Moshiach. May it happen speedily in our days, Amen. (2)


  1. Shemos Rabbah ch. 40. This is based on the following verse from Job 28: 27, “He saw and told, prepared and also researched and [then] spoke to man.”
  2. This essay is largely based on the Chassidic discourse, Basi Legani, 5730.

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