On Seeing Voices

The snow storms have covered up cars, sidewalks, lawns, bushes, rocks and garbage bags in strange formations, but here and there, colorful spots appear on the white carpet. A creative art project and / or anthropological survey can be conducted with the assortment of single gloves in the streets.

The icy, dirty snow in the streets glistens in the bright, freezing sun. It looks so beautiful to take a walk or run, until that first  step into the wind. In the stairwell I come across an older couple huffing and puffing. “It’s our gym”, they apologize with a smile. “mine too”, I agree as I hop on, at least on the way down…

Recently, I attended a couple of “Bar (Bat) Mitzvah Fairs”. The fairs usually take place in a pretty nice hotel’s ballroom, where various vendors set up shop to sell “Bar Mitzvah related items”. What’s “Bar/ Bat Mitzvah related items”? In “my time” / my kids’ time, it would have been different kinds of kippot, maybe an especially stylish bencher. But in a world where, per Jackie Mason, “everybody is Jewish”, Bar Mitzvah Fair has not only the kippa vendors, but also — glitzy dancers, cruises and personalized trips around the world, giant cakes and specialty desserts (dry-ice dyed popcorn to look smoking…), clothing, cards, every sort of swag imaginable (and more), and professional party planners who will do the whole event for you, just show up. Actually, maybe don’t. There is also an option to rent a VR (Virtual Reality) set; transport yourself straight to the Torah reading and be done with it.
I walk away empty, wondering what are we doing and where we’ve gone wrong. Here’s to hoping this life cycle event somehow regains greater meaning.

And while on smoking, in this week’s Torah reading, the mountain itself is smoking when the Children of Israel receive the Law. Commentators differ as to exactly what happened, and what exactly we got, but whatever it was, it changed human history forever.
Because we can’t perceive things without words, it had to be broken down into a list of items: there are ten of them and they can be grouped – in five’s or two’s; we can read them backwards, we can count the letters… each method adds new ideas, significance and depth, while at the same time, also takes away from the totality of it.
The Torah tries to convey the remarkableness of the event by providing a unique description: “and all the people see the voices… וכל העם רואים את הקולות” (Exodus 20:15). How come everybody was able to see? And how can anyone see voices? The description is almost psychotic! Can we really use one sense for another?
Rashi tells us, in the name of an older midrash, that no one was blind, deaf or mute, hence they could see and answer, saying, “na’ase venishma –  נעשה ונשמע” – we will do and we will listen. The midrash itself focuses on the fact that the text did not say that “the people see A voice” in the singular, but rather – voices. Why would the One G-d speak in many voices?? One way to understand it is that just like the manna was one “thing” but once on the ground, could be experienced by each person as a different food and flavor, so too G-d voice, comes to us as voices, each hearing what we’re ready for. Even Moses and Aaron heard different things! In the same “dibur” (saying), Moses heard G-d telling him to go from Midyan back to Egypt, while Aaron heard that he should leave Egypt and go to the desert. That’s how they met: they heard the same voice but to each it had a different instruction which was appropriate to him (Shmot Rabba 5:9).
Rav Hirsch points to the added value in “seeing the voices” as it implies greater confirmation of the speaker, for if I only hear and don’t see, I might not recognize the speaker or know where the sound is coming from. Alternatively, if I only see, the message might be outward and superficial– think phone and soundless tv. The Kli Yakar reminds us that one cannot hear as far as one can see. The People moved away from the grandness of the event, but by seeing the voices, the message stays that much stronger, surer and True. Should someone one day try to challenge it, they would know that the experience was doubly strong. Ibn Ezra tells us that in their essence, all emotions funnel to and stem from one common place within a person, only finding different expressions. The fluidity with which we use our senses might be reflected in modern communication: we say – “I hear you” when we’re writing a text… “I see what you’re saying” when we’re on the phone.
No doubt the experience was too intense. As the People withdrew back, fearing death, they asked Moses to speak for them. Nevertheless, G-d says, “so you will tell the Children of Israel, you saw that I spoke with you from the heaven”… (Exodus 20:19).
The voices we saw at Sinai seeped into the world and history changed forever. No longer a few individuals who hear G-d’s calls, but a whole nation transformed, as we witnessed a glimpse of the Divide. Faced with that which is beyond comprehension, if anything, the fact that we don’t know exactly what happened and need so many commentators to explain just a few words of it, might show us how Divine it was.

Shabbat Shalom.


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