August 7, 2018

Hearing with our eyes (Yitro)

Among the many unique aspects of Matan Torah we are told that “all the people saw the sounds, the flames, the blast of the ram’s horn and the mountain smoking” (Shemot 20:15), and according to a fascinating debate recorded in the Mechilta, this verse can be understood in two very different ways.

According to Rabbi Yishmael (the naturalist), this verse should be understood according to the laws of nature, meaning that the people saw what was visible (eg. the lightning), and heard what was audible (eg. the thunder).

However, according to Rabbi Akiva (the supernaturalist), we learn from this verse that the people both saw and heard what was visible. As he explains, ‘They saw a word of fire come out of God’s mouth and carving itself into the tablets, as it is written “the voice of the Lord carved with the flames of fire” (Tehillim 29:7)’ (Mechilta) such that ‘just as they saw the lightening, so too they saw the voice’ (Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael).

This means that Bnei Yisrael experienced synaesthesia – which is the term describing how a stimulus in one sensory modality (e.g. hearing) elicits a sensation in another modality (e.g. vision).

In her article titled ‘Seeing is Believing: Synaesthesia at Sinai’ (Derech Hateva Vol. 18), Kate Rosenblatt explores the significance of this unique experience. Quoting from the Ibn Ezra who explains how ‘all senses were connected into one’, she suggests that Matan Torah was an inner unifying experience. In fact, perhaps we could add that just as Matan Torah was an event of national unity where the Jewish people stood ‘like one person with one heart’, Matan Torah also created a sense of inner unity where each member of the Jewish people felt at one in themselves.

In seeking to make sense of this phenomena, Rav Kook explains (as elucidated by R’ Chanan Morrison in his Gold from the Land of Israel p. 135) that sound and sight are – at their root – united, and that only in our limited physical world, in this alma deperuda (disjointed world) are these phenomena disconnected. Consequently, if we limit ourselves to the present and if we only perceive the universe through the viewpoint of the temporal, then we will always be aware of the divide between sight and sound. However, if we look beyond the present and seek to experience the underlying unity of the universe, then we will be able to see sounds and hear sights.

Based on this insight, synaesthesia occurs at moments and in people who look beyond the here-and-now and who are searching to unify their entire being for a particular spiritual goal, and this approach seems to be supported by the work of Dr. Zvi Rosenstein, a professor on the medical faculty at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, whose research suggests that synesthetic perceptions are often associated with deeply spiritual and creative experiences.

Throughout Jewish history, there are many prophets and mystics who describe similar experiences. However, I would like to focus on one who may not have necessarily been either a prophet or a mystic, but who certainly looked beyond the present and sought to experience the underlying unity of the universe.

Ruth, the Moabite princess and convert who was to become the great-grandmother of David Hamelech and who will be a direct ancestor of Moshiach, was an extraordinary woman, and Dr. Yael Zeigler’s exceptional book (titled ‘Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy’) provides even more depth of understanding about this inspiring matriarch.

There are many qualities of Ruth, and one of those was the fact that she looked beyond the present by committing herself to accompany Naomi, her mother-in-law, despite being unable to offer her any stability or future. According to the Midrash (Ruth Rabbah 2:9), the name ‘Ruth’ teaches us that ‘she saw (ra’ata) the words of her mother-in-law’, and while the approach of Rabbi Yishmael may claim that this can be understood naturally, I read this verse in the spirit of Rabbi Akiva and believe that Ruth was someone whose life decisions showed an ability to look beyond the present and to seek the underlying unity of the universe.

Rather than merely hearing Naomi’s words who told her that she had little to offer her, Ruth saw her words – meaning that she experienced synesthesia like Bnei Yisrael saw the sounds at Matan Torah. Ruth experienced a sense of inner unity when she was with Naomi, and she knew that her destiny was with the Jewish people.

Sometimes it is not always clear what decisions we should take. But when we start hearing with our eyes, it’s time to pay attention.

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