Thursday, June 2, 2011

Shavuos: Seeing Sounds

The holiday of Shavuos is the unique moment in the year where Am Yisrael convenes to re-experience Ma’amad Har Sinai - the national assembly at the foot at Mount Sinai; the moment of Kabalas HaTorah, the receiving of the Torah HaKedoshah.

There are a vast amount of sources dedicated to detailing the abundant and fantastic miracles that occurred at Ma’amad Har Sinai, but among the most famous is not found in the Midrashim or the commentaries, rather it is simply stated in the Torah itself. The Passuk says (Shemos 20:15), “V’Chol Ha’Am Ro’im Es HaKolos” – ‘And the whole nation saw the sounds’. Amazing. Had the Torah itself not said it, telling the average reader that the Jewish nation perceived auditory messages with their eyes would be passed off as a far-flung psychedelic interpretation of the experience. But there it is; the Torah tells us, “V’Chol Ha’Am Ro’im Es HaKolos” – ‘And the whole nation saw the sounds’.

In order to reach a deeper understanding of what it means to see sounds, we need to understand the components separately by clarifying the seemingly obvious difference between our senses of sight and sound. With Hashem’s help, if we explore the profound words of the holy Sfas Emes hopefully we will walk away with a clearer and more inspiring understanding.

Everything in the Briyah, the expanse of creation, has Ma’alos and Chesronos - pluses and minuses. When comparing anything, one side will have strengths and weaknesses that the second side won’t. In the sensory world this applies just the same; sight affords us opportunities that sound doesn’t; and conversely, the ability to hear can accomplish things that sight cannot.

In the visual spectrum of Re’iya we say that what you see is what you get. We can perceive a whole message at once. There is a certain Shleimus, wholeness, that sight affords. We can take in an entire landscape in one shot. We can utilize Re’iya to recognize a person’s face with all of its factors and unique characteristics at once. Sound doesn’t quite pull this off. Sound by its very nature is a sense built on sequential processing. In a conversation or a song, syllable after syllable is decked on top of various nuances of tone to create a flowing idea that is only understood as the concept develops. Under normal circumstances, if we attempt to process the sounds that make up the phrase ‘have a nice day’ all at once, we will be left confused by the senseless cacophony.

Sound - Shmiya, has its strengths as well. Sound gives us a glimpse into the internal workings of the world. Sight only reveals the surface level. Any blockages in the way serve as the farthest point that can be perceived. If I visually judge a book by its cover, I remain clueless as to what its content is. On the other hand, sound is not bogged down by such things. Shmiya by its very nature comes from an internal reaction and it can never be seen. Speech – not just in the psychological sense – starts on my insides. Air is channeled form my guts and emerges developed. Speech, then, is a revelation of internal expression that surpasses shallow externalities; it is an internal experience. The eyes, which themselves remain surface-level organs are not like the ears, which in the very design channel sound deep inside my head.

Sight is externally full, but it ends with that level of profundity as well. Sound is deep but choppy. Sight is whole while sound needs to be pieced together. But, as we will explain, for Torah to be experienced as transcendental and other-worldly, it needs to be accepted on both levels and in the counterintuitive order.

This is what happened at Ma’amad Har Sinai. Because the Jews accomplished the supernatural feat of accepting the Torah both wholesomely and internally it came across to them supernaturally. Am Yisrael accomplished this with their famous words Na’aseh V’Nishma - first they accepted to fulfill all the Mitzvos and only then they resigned to learn about them. Let’s explain what this means.

Na’aseh - we will do – is connected to Re’iya because like we said, Re’iya means to absorb a greater context. When the Jews say Na’aseh first it means that Jews first accepted upon themselves the entire picture, the full spectrum of Torah-observance. Only then they said Nishma - we will listen, they took upon themselves the detailed education process second. Education is intrinsically a Shmiya-related process. One piece of information is build on top of the next to formulate a coherent lesson. Trying to digest an entire textbook at once would be very much like attempting to decipher ‘have a nice day’ in one confusing sound-bite.

But the Jews said, ‘We don’t care! We are so excited to bring Ratzon Hashem into our lives that we’ll try to take the whole thing on at once, with all of its massive implications. Na’aseh. Only after we’ve been completely fused with God’s will can we start to pick up the details. Nishma. First we full heartedly sign up, we get on board and sign at the dotted line - Na’aseh. Once we’re fully invested, emotionally and physically and we know that we won’t back out will we work out how to really grasp all of its complexities and really make it our own - Nishma.

Because the Jews were willing to go against logic and accept the big picture without knowing the details, because they brought Na’aseh before Nishma, Hashem reciprocated by reflecting their courageousness in the form of the Torah’s counterintuitive delivery – they were able to See (in connection to Na’aseh) the Sounds (in connection to Nishma).

What does this have to do with my acceptance of the Torah? The answer is that the concepts that we just discussed are the remedy to an all-to-common general lack of excitement about Torah that many of our peers may sometimes feel. How many times have we heard someone say that a certain aspect of Judaism, a specific concept or series of laws simply doesn’t speak to them? ‘I dunno; it’s just not for me.’ This is tragic. But it comes from a very ‘Nishma-first’ attitude. We believe - and for good and justified reason – that Judaism will be more meaningful if we accept it in parts. ‘I’m not interested in being a 100% Eved Hashem just yet – let’s learn a little bit and see where it goes.’ Such an outlook may be logical but it’s doomed for mediocrity. The Jews at Sinai certainly didn’t feel that way. They knew that accepting all of the seemingly endless details of an observant lifestyle may have been a little too much to handle at that moment, but they knew that they wanted to be fully on board, they knew that we were going to be entirely in-sync with the grand plan, even if it meant a slow process of picking up more and more knowledge as they went along. They were Na’aseh-first. We can learn from this model.

Na’aseh V’Nishma, and its production of V’Chol Ha’Am Ro’I'm Es HaKolos teaches us that any attempt at spiritual growth must be preceded by a whole-hearted dedication to everything holy – even if in actuality such deed is out of reach. The emotional and mental dedication to the cause - Na’aseh is absolutely crucial if there is to be meaningful and internalized carrying out of action - Nishma. Only when I go through this seemingly backwards logic in my dedication to spiritual growth will I be open to the possibility of experiencing a truly meaningful - and perhaps even magical - experience of my own Kabalas HaTorah.

Shavuos is our opportunity to set the record straight once again. Shavuos means that Am Yisrael is once again standing at the foot of Har Sinai, and if until now I’ve been picky-choosy and thereby overall unfulfilled and uninspired by my Judaism, now’s the time to turn it around. Now’s the time to say to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, “It’s just me and You. Nothing else. I’m on your side. It’s going to be hard, I know that already, and I may not be able to do everything at once, but I want to. I want to be a massive Tzadik. I want to be on a spiritual high 24/7. I want to keep all of the Mitzvos all the time. First I’ll say Na’aseh, I’ll tell you that I want it all. The I’ll say Nishma, I’ll show you that bit by bit I’ll make my way.”

HaKadosh Baruch Hu should give us a Bracha to tap into the amazing inspiration that comes to us by standing at Ma’amad Har Sinai once again. We should have the energy and motivation to achieve our upmost in Avodas Hashem. If we can do this there is no doubt that we will live lives of Shleimus and Simcha mocing closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and ultimately the Geulah Sheleimah!

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