Wednesday, January 26, 2011

seeing is believing

The experience of mattan Torah was one of synethesia, "ro'im es hakolos," Bnei Yisrael saw the voice of Hashem. Miracles have a purpose -- there must have been some reason for Hashem's voice to be not only heard, but also seen.

There is a famous story in which R' Chaim Volozhiner was recounting the greatness of his brother, R' Itzele, and remarked that he would be considered a talmid chacham even had he lived in the days of Amoraim and even Tanaim. The listeners were fabergasted, as surely R' Chaim Volozhiner was not given to saying empty praises. If this is how R' Chaim described his brother, what could he possibly say about his rebbe, the GR"A? R' Chaim Volozhiner explained the difference between the two as follows: if you ask a Jew to tell you the previous word in any pasuk in Ashrei, or the previous word in a sentence of Aleinu, he will know the answer in a second, but to get that answer he will have to say that pasuk or sentence in his mind from the beginning. R' Itzele knew kol haTorah kula by heart like Ashrei or Aleinu. The GR"A was different -- he knew the previous word without having to think of the pasuk from the beginning; he knew kol haTorah kula backwards as well as forwards.

What's the difference between these two types of knowledge? When asked for the previous word of a pasuk in Ashrei by heart, we rely on our auditory memory, and therefore have to recite the pasuk from the beginning. If we have a sidur open in front of us, we just look at the previous word and can answer without hesitation. The former is shemiya, the latter is re'iya. Kabbalas haTorah was an experience during which Torah was absorbed and accepted to the greatest degree humanly possible. That type of knowledge comes only through re'iya, seeing, not just shemiya, hearing.

Our parsha opens with the laws of the even ivri, the Jewish slave. If the slave chooses to remain indentured beyond six years, his ear is punctured. Why? Rashi cites from Chazal: "The ear which heard on Sinai that Bnei Yisrael are my [Hashem's] servants and not servants to servants," deserves to be punished. "Ain lecha ben chorin elah ha'osek baTorah" -- true freedom is through kabbalas haTorah, through learning Torah. A person who wishes to remain enslaved demonstrates that his kabbalas haTorah was done only with his ears, by hearing, but not by seeing -- his experience of kabbalas haTorah was lacking in some crucial element.


  1. I that that matan torah has more to do with a profound awareness of the world and Hashem than detailed intricate Torah knowledge.

    The medrash says lo nitnah torah lidaresh ela ledor hamidbar, sheniyah lahem ochlei terumah, but the aseres hadibros are for everyone

  2. I don't think "synethesia" is an appropriate term:

    First, because it's a disfunction. Is a term for a mental illness really what we want to use here?

    Second, because it presumes that the condition is specific to Benei Yisrael's perception. Perhaps the sound itself that was different, as objective external realities?


  3. great unknown4:02 PM

    Micha, I would say both were true; while the sound itself could be perceived by others - that was only a malbush to the absolute emes of the words. The ruchniyus of the words, the aish shechorah al gabay eish levona, required a different perception, unique to the neshama and thus unique to klal yisroel. However, again I agree with you, the pathology synesthesia does not begin to describe the direct injection of the emes into the neshamos of klal yisroel, completely bypassing their physical neurological tracts. At least that's the way I remember it.

    The concept in the blog is also beautiful, and can be applied to Pinchas' ra'ah ma'aseh ve'nizkar halacha. R' Gifter zatz"l applied it, in his haskama to Zelig Pliskin's first sefter, by saying that of all the talmidim who heard the halacha in shiur, only Pinchas visualized the ma'aseh and not just memorized the words. Thus, when it became le'ma'aseh, it was truly something internalized and almost instinctive, as opposed to a fragment of information.

  4. GU: you were mechaven to the Moreh Nevuchim. The Rambam's point there (where? I don't recall, 2:33? I am too tired to get the yishuv hadaas necessary to follow the Moreh's point) is to explain that Maamad Har Sinai was both a unique revelation, and yet even the first two diberos were not received by the masses through Moshe's sort of nevu'ah.

  5. The Tiferes Shlom plays with the contrast between shemiya and re'iya in many places. I think the first instance is after Adam's sin, when Adam responds to Hashem's question of why he was hiding by saying, "kolcha shamati" -- the use of "shemiya" as opposed to "re'iya" is indicative of man's fall.

  6. I think synesthesia is a perfect way to describe it, and have often used it myself. Yes, it can be a pathology, but in this case, it wasn't. Also, there are many people who conceive of numbers are having colors that are unique to each one. True, people on LSD have reported similar experiences. So no, Mattan Torah was not a Peter Max event, but the term is great. The experience plucked the chord of our neshamos and it resonated through every sense we have.

  7. Anonymous4:09 PM

    Wasn't R Chaim discussing his brother R Zalmele? Details aside, your insight is beautiful

  8. shoyn9:57 PM

    for a beautiful chasidic insight into this and even a leshitosoi, see Likutei Sichos from LR vol 6 parshas yisro P 119, available at