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SEEING OR HEARING?

Friday, 17 February, 2017 - 12:30 pm

A rabbi went for a swim in an empty public swimming pool.

A pool attendant ran over. “Hey!” he shouted. “What are you doing? There’s no lifeguard here! Can’t you read?” He pointed to a large sign hanging prominently on the pool fence reading: POOL CLOSED NO SWIMMING ALLOWED

“Of course I can read,” said the Rabbi. “The sign says: Pool closed? No! Swimming Allowed!”

It’s a silly joke, but it shows how one can master words without meaning. In the case of this rabbi, it shows how the law can even be understood to mean the exact opposite of what is intended.

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, records the awesome and awe-inspiring spectacle that accompanied the giving of the Torah, and the actual delivery of the Ten Commandments.

"And it came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there was thunder and lightning and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of a horn exceeding loud; and all the people that were in the camp trembled... Now Mount Sinai smoked, for G-d had descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like that of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly….” 

Then, right after the incredible depiction of the Ten Commandments is this bewildering verse:

“And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain, and the people saw and trembled….”

Rabbi Akiva said: they saw what is heard, and heard what is seen.

What can this mean? Voices are heard, not seen. How can one see voices? Why was it important for G-d to put on this flashy audio-visual display while giving the Torah to the Jewish people?

The Chassidic masters saw in this synthesis between sound and vision the essence of all of Judaism. Its message is perhaps more vital today than ever before.

Sight and hearing are two vastly different senses. They are two different ways to perceive and process the world around us, each possessing its own set of strengths and weaknesses that provide for a particular perspective and experience.

Sight provides us with the ability to perceive a given event or scene in its totality. When presented with a painting, say, we are immediately taken in by the overall impression of the piece. Sight, then, is something of a top-down experience; one that deals with the entire picture, before moving on to specifics.

In hearing, the opposite is true. When one hears a story, it is impossible to first get a general impression of the entire scene. The listener takes in one sentence at a time. Only after hearing the specifics can one hope to understand the full picture. Hearing, then, is a bottom-up experience; only after hearing all of the details can the person grasp the whole scene.

There’s an ancient Eastern allegory about six blind men who encountered an elephant.

The first bumped into its stomach. “Oh,” he said, there seems to be a wall here!”

The second felt the elephant’s colossal leg. “No,” he said, “there’s a tree here.”

The next felt the great beast’s tail, and mistook it for some rope; the next felt the trunk and assumed it was a tree branch; the next felt the ear and thought it was a hand fan; and the last touched the elephant’s tusks, and claimed he had found some piping.

Finally, a seeing man arrived, and immediately declared the thing they were standing before an elephant.

This story helps us appreciate the disadvantage of hearing vs. seeing. The seeing person gazing at an elephant sees it in a single snapshot. Yes, he can observe the elephant’s various limbs, but for him, they are parts of a whole. He sees the generality immediately, and if he sees the detailed limbs, he sees them as part of the whole elephant. But for the man without sight, even if he were to feel every part of the elephant, and correctly discern that an elephant was standing before him, the whole would still be the sum of its parts. He has only ever experienced the elephant by “hearing” about it, one detail at a time. The entire elephant is just a collection of those details.

In much the same way, there are two very different ways in which one can study, explore, practice, and experience Judaism. There is a “seeing” approach to Judaism, and a “hearing” one. One can “hear” the Torah, or “see” the Torah.

One can study the Torah and see the “big picture.” Even if this person focuses on one detail in the Torah, one law, one story, one ritual, one argument, one nuance—he or she sees it as an expression of the “whole picture.”

But one can also study and practice Torah and never really “see” it, only “hear” it. This symbolizes a person who never really “gets” the full, big picture of what Judaism is at its core. They simply are aware of many diverse laws, stories, customs, traditions, beliefs, ideas, and values. Even if they master many of the details, they never really grasp the essence, the full vision.

Torah law is very strict about Passover, and people cautiously practice many stringencies. They thoroughly clean their homes from Chametz and assure that all food is Kosher for Passover.

Rabbi Yisroel Salanter lived in the mid 1800's. One time, he was unable to personally supervise the baking of the extra "watched over" Matzah, due to illness. He sent some of his pupils to the bakery to take his place in baking the Matzah.

His students asked him in which areas they should be careful when baking the Matzah, thinking he would say to watch the dough carefully, to ensure that the water and flour were kneaded quickly, or something along those lines. Yet Reb Yisroel said to them: "The woman who kneads the dough is a widow. Be careful, my pupils, not to mistreat her. Do not say unkind words to her. Do not scream at her; be very sensitive to her feelings.”

That is why the moment we became a people and accepted the Torah, G-d made sure we could see the voices. When the Torah was given to us, we did not only see it or only hear it. Rather, we saw that which is heard, and we heard that which is seen. The Jewish people experienced both perspectives together.

They saw what is usually heard: In every detail of every law and ritual, they perceived the grand vision of Judaism: To transform the entire world and make it One with G-d. They understood that putting on Tefillin also means refining and directing the heart and mind to the Divine, and transforming your inner character in a daily battle for transcendence and oneness.

Conversely, they also “heard” the “vision” of the Torah: The Jewish people perceived how the grand ideas of Judaism are not meant to stand alone. It isn’t enough to just be swept away by the glorious universal themes of Judaism. The vision must be translated into something “audible,” specific, and tangible.

These two complementary approaches to Judaism find wonderful expression in the language of classic Jewish literature.

When the Talmud introduces a new teaching or a decision, it regularly uses the words,“Come and listen.” Intriguingly, when the Zohar, the foundational text of Kabbalah, introduces a new teaching, it employs a different expression: “Come and see.”

What is the reason for this difference?

The Talmud and Zohar are the primary texts of the oral tradition. They represent the law and mysticism of Judaism, the revealed and the esoteric parts of the Torah. The Talmud is mainly a record of Halachic discussion, focused on the many laws and details of Jewish law; the “hearing” of Judaism. The Zohar is the foundational text of Jewish mysticism. It is the soul of the Torah, concerned with the overall meaning and purpose of the body of Jewish law; the “vision” of Judaism. The Talmud asks us to “hear”; Kabbalah and Chassidism ask us to “see.”

And yet, the Talmud and Zohar are not two alternate paths in the Torah. Both constitute the singular organism of Judaism. What we see we must also hear; what we hear we must also see.

Today, especially, we need both, for without both there is no Torah, and no Sinai. We cannot lose sight of the forest for the trees, or forget about the trees for the forest.

Before Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov went public with his teachings and established the Chassidic movement, he served as a ritual slaughterer in a small village in the Ukraine. After he left his post, the village hired another slaughterer to slaughter their cattle and fowl. One day, a villager sent one of his non-Jewish laborers with a chicken to the slaughterer, but the messenger returned with the bird still alive. "This new fellow," he explained, "is no good."

"Why?" asked the villager.

"Oh no," said the peasant. "From me he'll get no chickens to slaughter. He stands there with a pitcher, and uses ordinary water from the well to sharpen his knife! Yisrolik, the previous slaughterer, always sharpened his knife with his tears…" 

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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