Seeing Spiritual Sights

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Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Parshat Yitro is best known as the parshah that records our stand at Har Sinai as Hashem gave us the Ten Commandments. Immediately after receiving the Ten Commandments, the Torah describes the background scene for us: "The entire people saw the thunder and the flames, the sound of the shofar and the smoking mountain..." The very first observation our Sages make is that since "the entire people saw...," we must assume that anyone who had been blind was healed, and that there were no blind people at Sinai when the Torah was given.

But the greater question remains. How can one see sounds, the thunder and the sounds of the shofar? Rabbi Sorotskin offers two possibilities. Either at the moment of receiving the Torah Bnei Yisroel reached such a transcendent state that they could see sounds, as could Adam and Chava before the sin, or that the sounds themselves had a different quality as they presented to the senses.

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael offer variations on these possibilities. Rabbi Akiva suggests that the roles of our senses were reversed at Sinai, while Rabbi Ishmael says simply that, although "saw" appears at the beginning of our verse, it refers to the smoking mountain at the end of the verse.

The Inside Story, where Rabbi Tauber adapts the talks of the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l, raises a question on each of these ideas. If we accept that we saw the sounds, what was the purpose of this change in nature? Alternately, why would the Torah repeats the thunder, lightening, shofar blast, fire and smoke when it has already described them earlier?

Rabbi Tauber continues by explaining the difference between these two sense. Seeing, he writes, is purely physical. It is concrete evidence and generally irrefutable. Hearing, on the other hand, is metaphysical and emotional. Hearing often conveys understanding rather than specific information. Hearing can convince us, but not as convincingly as seeing. [Hearing is the medium of propagandists and those who disseminate misinformation. CKS] Since we are physical beings, the physical is more substantial that the conceptual, the conceptual being more susceptible to reassessment. [How science keeps changing! CKS]

What changed at the revelation was that the spiritual-conceptual now became the absolute reality while the physical world was perceived as more ephemeral, like the fleeting sound. Thus, sight and hearing, as Rabbi Akiva argues, were reversed.

Rabbi Ishmael, however, maintains that vision and hearing remained as they were. What changed was that both the physical and the spiritual were now imbued with their divine essence and purpose.

Both the Maharat"z zt”l and Rabbi Asher Weiss interpret the sounds not as the thunder that accompanied the lightening at the Revelation, but as the physical proof of their experiences at redemption, and as the materialization of the prophecies they had heard. They saw with complete clarity the reality of Hashem's existence. As Rabbi Eliyahu Roth zt”l explains, the process of hearing, of joining one sound to another to form a thought, was now integrated with the instantaneous message of sight, so that the knowledge of אין עוד מלבדו, that nothing exists except Hashem Himself became embedded into our very being. It is this reality we are commanded to pass on to our children; this is why the commandment of honoring one's parents in included in the first five Commandments, those usually designated as the "spiritual" commandments between Man and God, rather than among the five social commandments.

According to the Rambam, transmitting this mesorah is counted as one of the 613 mitzvoth. It is this message from Sinai that gives Bnei Yisroel the ability to hold strong in our belief despite whatever happens, writes Rambam in Igeret Teiman. The importance of this transmission also explains why, as Rabbi Soloveitchick zt"l points out, we mourn the death of a parent for a full year, for we have lost a link in the chain of that transmission. In fact, Ramban suggests that this experience actually preceded the giving the Ten Commandments and refers to the sound of the shofar.

Rabbi Tatz brings mystical interpretation into our discussion. Seeing is a higher level than hearing. In this world, we hear, but in the higher world, there is only sight. As noted earlier, hearing requires sequence of sounds in time, whereas sight is instantaneous. These senses are already alluded to in our words for earth and heaven. Earth is ארץ whose root is רץ, running, movement. In contrast, heaven is שמים, from שם, there. While on earth we are always in a state of movement, rushing to reach our goal, in heaven we have already arrived. No movement is necessary. Indeed, no movement is possible. That is why, when Hashem revealed Himself at Sinai, all movement stopped. No wind, no birds chirping. Heaven and earth merged, and at that moment, sound was not possible. What is heard in this world, will be seen in the higher world, and all flesh saw that it was Hashem's mouth that had spoken (Isaiah 40:5).

The sound at Sinai was a supernatural sound, reminds us Rabbi Broide in Sam Derech. It was a sound that never ended, yet it had no echo. It was a prophetic sound. All Bnei Yisroel were now on the level of prophets and saw a prophetic vision. While we, as human beings, transmit information through our voices, Hashem transmits information that, in human terms, can only be described as sight. This spiritual experience included the entire Torah, all future prophecy, and all wisdom. This prophetic experience was not limited to the Ten Commandments, but included all the knowledge and secrets of the world.

The writing on the luchot/Tablets, written with God's "hand," mystically alludes to this theme, writes Rabbi Chanan in Toras Chesed. Citing the Zohar, he tells us that the Torah was written black fire on white fire. We extrapolate that the Torah scroll is written black letters on white parchment. Both the letters and the white spaces are part of Torah wisdom. The black fire is the simpler message of the Torah, the more easily seen. But the white spaces—they carry the secrets of the Torah. Therefore at the Seder we mention both the Two לוחות/Tablet of the Law and the Ten Commandments, for the

Tablets represent the white secrets while the Ten Commandments written in black represents the simple meaning of the text.

We are aware that if any letter of the Torah is missing, the Scroll is no longer valid (until repaired), but the Torah Scroll is considered equally defective if some of the white space is missing because two of the letters are touching. If the white space is missing, we've lost some of the secrets of the Torah.

Our Chazal tell us that our national name, ישראל is an acronym for יש שישים ריבוא אותיות לתורה, there are 600,000 letters in the Torah. Upon analysis, there are only a little over 300,000 letters in the Torah. However, the Imrei Emes zt”l notes that when one adds the all important spaces between the letters, the total is indeed 600,000, the number we ascribe to those redeemed from the servitude of Egypt.

Let us now return to seeing the sounds, the "voice" of Hashem announcing each of the Ten Commandments. Indeed, it was incumbent upon Bnei Yisroel to actually see the words spelled out as they were being spoken. All it would take is a misunderstanding of one written letter in a pair of homonyms to think that "Thou shalt not kill" is "Thou shall kill for Him, "...steal for Him..., etc."

Rav Meislisch notes that all saw and all heard, not just physically, but spiritually. They were able to see all of history, more that the Prophet Yechezkel [who saw the Divine chariot] saw, more than the angels saw. They saw the concealed light and their own inherent holiness. They were overcome with love for Hakodosh Boruch Hu and desired to reach the level of sanctity they saw as their spiritual potential. Our tradition tells us that they were so overwhelmed, that their souls left them and Hashem had to return their souls to their bodies.

Every person has a spiritual spark that is usually concealed. At Sinai, notes Sifsei Daas, each member of Bnei Yisroel saw his unique Godly image not just as a heavenly image to try to copy, but as the spark of God within himself. More powerful than a voice, they saw and experienced the spiritual power within themselves. As the Piezentzer Rav HY"D says, they turned into the letters of the Torah. They saw their heavenly souls and the souls of each other as letters of the Torah here joined together as a complete Sefer Torah. Afraid of being replaced by the letters, Moshe reassured them that they were actually being elevated to reflect the letters as a manifestation of the will of God.

Why did Hashem go beyond the natural order in giving us the ability to see the sounds, asks Rabbi Goldwicht zt”l? Because we believe what we see, and now we would be able to transmit what we have seen through our human element of speech. Further, Rabbi Reiss points out, Bnei Yisroel רואים, are seeing in the present tense these sounds. Hashem is continuously talking to us, even today. That voice לא יספה, never stopped. That voice is the influence of Hashem in all generations, writes the Gur Aryeh. That voice has never changed. Rather it is we who have changed. We need to be aware that Hashem is always here.

In our Rosh Hashanah liturgy, this is one of the verses we read in connection with the section of Malchuyot/Kingship. We could ask Hashem to open our eyes to the path of truth, to see the goodness and truth within each other and within ourselves, as we did at Sinai.

Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l provides the lesson for each of us as individual, but even more as teachers and parents. We must strive to understand the Torah and its messages not only on a superficial level, but with a deep clarity as if we can see the meaning right before our eyes. Then we will be able to transmit those lessons others, whether they be our children, our students, our friends, or neighbors. While we read the Torah aloud, we must strive not only to hear the words, but to see the black letters written on the white parchment and to contemplate what we can continue to see and to hear in these sacred sounds.