Shavuos, which this year falls out on Friday in Israel and on Friday & Shabbat in Chutz l’Aretz, is the time of the giving of the Torah. The revelation at Sinai was certainly the most momentous event in the history of mankind. G-d speaks to a multitude of people; a whole assembly experienced prophecy. That had not happened before nor has it happened since. Nor has any religion, other than Judaism, even made the audacious claim that it did happen. G-d’s personal entrance onto the stage of human history at Sinai was preceded and accompanied by a light-and-sound show of much majesty.
“And all the people saw the thunder and the torches and the shofar sound and the mountain smoking. And when the people saw it, they moved and stood from afar.”
Saw the thunder: RASHI: They saw the audible which can not be seen under any other circumstances.
Questioning the Midrash
Rashi drew this comment from the midrash Mechilta. When we look there we find that Rashi has quoted but one opinion of a dispute. The midrash quotes two opinions: Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael. Rabbi Akiba says, as Rashi wrote, “they saw the audible and they heard the visible.” Rabbi Ishmael says “They saw the visible and they heard the audible.’
This is a strange dispute, isn’t it? What does Rabbi Ishmael mean to tell us when he says “They saw the visible, and they heard the audible.”
Of course. Every normal person sees the visible – we don’t need the unforgettable Sinai experience to “see the visible.” What is the deeper meaning of this dispute?
The following interpretation is the from the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Reb Menachem Mendle Shneerson, zt”l.
Seeing is Believing
Let us first understand the difference between seeing and hearing. Seeing is a clearer sense than hearing. A sighted but deaf person has a much better sense of the world than does a blind person who can hear. So sight is much more advantageous than hearing as a means of experiencing the world.
On the other hand, hearing has its own advantage. We can hear ideas, we can think of abstractions that are received through hearing. In short, vision is an advantage in the physical world while hearing is advantage in the world of the abstract and the spiritual. And this is so because man is essentially a physical being – albeit with spiritual attributes, but basically he is a physical being. So his sense of sight helps him most in his home territory, this world. While his sense of hearing has limited utility in the matters of this world (since it a more “spiritual” sense) its utility, though limited, is in the world of the abstract, the world of the spirit.
The Meaning of the Sinai Experience
Rabbi Akiva said that the Sinai experience took man out of his physical limitations and thrust him (momentarily) into a higher spiritual realm, where he saw what is heard, that is, one had a clarity of understanding (with the clarity of seeing) of the spiritual reality. And he heard what is visible, that is one had an abstract, deeper, understanding of the physical reality.
In short, man was raised to higher level of awareness and sanctity at Sinai.
Rabbi Ishmael, on the other hand, was of the opinion that the Sinai experience was not to raise man up to different, ethereal, reality, rather its purpose was to bring the Divine down into this world. At Sinai G-d came down to meet man. Thus man remained the same – he saw what is visible and heard what is audible.
In short he lived normally in this world. And that is the purpose of the Matan Torah at Sinai, that man should learn to bring the Divine into his physical, material, earthly existence.
Rabbi Akiva differed on the purpose of the Revelation at Sinai. He believed its purpose was to raise man up to higher, less earthly, experience. One where he could ‘See the sounds (ideas) and hear the sights.’ Rabbi Akiva we should recall was a Ba’al Teshuva. His whole life was dedicated to reaching higher realms and even being privileged to give up his earthly life for the love of G-d.
Rabbi Ishamael, no less a lover of Hashem, was a High Priest, whose task it was to teach people how to bring the holy down into their everyday life.
The apparently trivial dispute touched on by Rashi’s comment, in fact, touches on the heart of the meaning of the service of G-d. Two opinions, two worldviews. Each right for the right person.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Somayach
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