O, SAY CAN YOU SEE?
Rabbi David Walk
There are just oodles of rabbis writing weekly articles (for some of us that's spelled 'weakly') about the Torah readings. Personally, I really enjoy writing these pieces. I had better, because I'm not getting paid for it. In any case I must admit that, in my opinion, the best of us in current times is Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. I'm proud to count myself in his company. However this week I will stick my neck out by questioning a fascinating position that he has taken. In an article printed five years ago for parshat Va'etchanan he wrote, 'There was a profound difference between the two civilizations of antiquity that between them shaped the culture of the West: ancient Greece and ancient Israel. The Greeks were the supreme masters of the visual arts: art, sculpture, architecture and the theater. Jews, as a matter of profound religious principle, were not. God, the sole object of worship, is invisible. He transcends nature. He created the universe and is therefore beyond the universe. He cannot be seen. He reveals Himself only in speech. Therefore the supreme religious act in Judaism is to listen. Ancient Greece was a culture of the eye; ancient Israel a culture of the ear. The Greeks worshiped what they saw; Israel worshiped what they heard.' Bravo, well said, Lord Sacks, but what are we going to say this week when our parsha begins, 'See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse (Deuteronomy 11:26).' So, our parsha seems to place sight on a very high level, perhaps greater than hearing. How do we reconcile the contradiction?
Through the first three Torah readings of Deuteronomy (Devarim, Va'etchanan, and Eikev) there is a heavy emphasis on listening But starting with our parsha, it seems that sight takes over. Not only does our Torah reading begin with this instruction to look, but later in the parsha we're told that we should be 'seen' in Yerusahalayim three times a year. Towards the end of the book, Moshe informs the nation about an event to be played out in Israel. This scene takes place in Shechem between Har Eival and Har Grizim (chapter 27). This great covenantal happening is very visual, with each tribe standing in pre-designated positions. In chapter 29, he says, 'You have seen all that God did before your eyes in Egypt...the amazing wonders which your eyes have seen (verses 1-2). And finally, Moshe repeats his warnings from here, 'See that I have placed before you today life and good; death and evil...therefore, choose life (30:15 & 19).' It seems that sight is very important, at least on the same level as hearing. So, what can Rabbi Sacks say to save his premise that we're the audio people; it's those nasty Greeks who are into video.
Allow me a short digression. How do we humans collect information? Well, it seems that depends on our age. Babies gather information about equally with all five senses. That's why they're always putting things in their mouths. When I was a parent I thought that was disgusting. As a grandparent, it's so cute! And I don't have to clean up or bring the baby to the emergency room. This shifts as we grow and mature so that by adolescence we are gathering almost all of our data from just two senses, sight and hearing. Historically, by adulthood the majority of knowledge came from listening to the experiences and traditions from others. Today sight stays in the game, because we travel more and watch media so much more than those who came before us.
Back to our issue, the Netivot Shalom (the Rebbe of Slonim, 1911-2001) discusses this sensory competition. He comments that hearing is the source for knowing the past. We listen to our mentors to discover what happened before our advent. That idea we could have figured out on our own. However, the rebbe adds that listening is also the source of our faith in the future. We listen to the great prophets who also listened to messages imparted by God. I would add that listening is also the major component of relationships. Sadly, it's an art which is disappearing. We don't seem to have the patience to listen to each other anymore, but that's a topic for another article.
So, what is sight good for? The rebbe explains that sight is for absorbing the present. And this is very important, because that's the power of the yetzer hara (evil inclination, dark side). Remember what the happened in the Garden of Eden. 'And God caused the trees to grow from the ground and they were pleasant to the sight (Genesis 2:9)', and, more ominously, a little later, 'And the woman saw that the tree was good to eat, and it was a desire to her eyes (3:6).' This danger caused by eyes seeing temptations is also recorded in the section of tzitzit, 'And you will see it and remember all the mitzvot of God...and therefore not go after...your eyes, which cause promiscuity (Numbers 15:39).' The rebbe takes these examples and declares that Moshe's message is that when we have listened to our teachers and the Torah we must be able to see in that moment of temptation that doing the sin is a bad choice. In other words, the knowledge which we garnered through hearing, must give us the mind's eye to observe our situations and see the benefits of adhering to those lessons. We use our power of vision to reinforce our power of listening.
So, I think that we've saved Rabbi Sacks (as if he needed my help). The essential sense in Judaism is, indeed, the power of hearing. The basic messages of our faith are passed on through listening, whether the blast of the shofar or the kol d'mama daka (still small voice) or the rebbe's class. This is in opposition to the visual messages of the great temples of the ancient world and even a certain modern religion. We use our eyes as a supplement to our ears. Do you see what I mean?