Synesthesia at Sinai – Parshat Yitro

What was it like?

This week’s parsha contains what is arguably the single most important moment in the Torah: The Revelation at Mount Sinai.  You might say that the whole of the Jewish religion is based on this event. And the content of that revelation is perhaps the most famous part of the Torah, and the most enduring legacy of Judaism: The Ten Commandments.

What I want to focus on, though, is not the meaning or the content of the revelation, but the experience itself.  What was it actually like? What did it feel like to be standing there at Sinai?

Well, one thing we do know from the narrative is that it was totally overwhelming.  “When the people saw it,” we read just after the commandments are given, “they fell back, and stood at a distance.” And the first thing they did, when they recovered, was to ask Moses to make it stop:

You speak to us, and we will obey.  But do not let God speak to us, lest we die. (Exodus 20:15)

דַּבֵּראַתָּה עִמָּנוּ, וְנִשְׁמָעָה; וְאַליְדַבֵּר עִמָּנוּ אֱלֹקים, פֶּןנָמוּת.

The experience of truly encountering God, it seems, was so overpowering, it was just too much to handle. They felt that at any moment they could slip away, and lose themselves completely.  It’s like staring into the sun.  You know the sun is there, you can see its light and maybe glimpse at it for a second, but if you look directly into it for too long, you’ll go blind.  Except that this is staring into the Source, not of light, but of existence itself.  And so you don’t just go blind. You are obliterated.

This fear is confirmed later on by God, when Moses asks to see God’s glory and God responds:

You cannot see My face, for a person cannot see Me and live. (Exodus 33:20)

לֹא תוּכַל לִרְאֹת אֶתפָּנָי:  כִּי לֹאיִרְאַנִי הָאָדָם, וָחָי.

And yet… there was something the people at Sinai did see. Just before they retreat and beg for relief, we read this curious line:

All the people saw the sounds and the flashes, the sound of the shofar and the mountain smoking… (Exodus 20:15)

וְכָלהָעָם רֹאִים אֶתהַקּוֹלֹת וְאֶתהַלַּפִּידִם, וְאֵת קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר, וְאֶתהָהָר, עָשֵׁן

Did you catch that?  They saw the sounds?  Seeing God may be dangerous; but seeing sound – that’s impossible.

Just to be clear, the word for ‘sounds’ here in Hebrew is kolot (קולות), which can be translated as ‘voices,’ or even ‘thunder.’ So some translations have it that the people saw “the thunder and lighting.” But even so, that phrasing doesn’t really resolve the difficulty. You still can’t see thunder. And anyway, we’ve got another kol in the verse – the ‘sound’ of the shofar – and it seems they saw that, too.

So what’s going on?  How did they “see the sounds”? Well, this is just the kind of phrase that the commentators go nuts over (parsha-nuts!). And there are tons of great answers.

Let’s review some:

– The Rashbam is a commentator who always looks for a plain, straightforward answer.  He’s not going to accept that they actually saw sounds, that’s way too out there. So he says that what they saw was “the hail and the stones” flying around.  And his proof that there was hail here on Mt. Sinai is that during the plague of hail back in Egypt, there was also thunder – kolot. So thunder and hail always go together.

Now, that’s the most rational attempt at an answer that we’re going to get.

– Then there are the more poetic or metaphorical reads. The Italian Renaissance commentator, Ovadiah Sforno beautifully says:

This is like the phrase in in Ecclesiastes, ‘and my heart saw’ – that is, they meditated on the idea of the sounds…

כמו ולבי ראה (קהלת א:טז). התבוננו בענין הקולות

Rabbeinu Bachya, a great Medieval Spanish commentator who liked to mix rational and mystical interpretations, writes:

‘Seeing’ here means ‘understanding,’ as in, “Ah, I see, the scent of my son…” (Genesis 27:27).

ראיה זו ענין השגה וכן (בראשית כז) ראה ריח בני

This is like the way we say in English, “Oh, I see!” to mean, “I understand!” Maimonides, in the Guide to the Perplexed (1:46), gives the same explanation.

So all of these thinkers understand the Torah to be speaking not exactly, but poetically, or idiomatically.

– On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who take the “seeing sounds” phrase very literally. A favorite of mine, the Kli Yakar, of Prague, has this very cool take on it:

Every word that came out of God’s mouth, immediately began to take form, and became so tangible that they could see the letters flying in the air like they were written in front of them.

שכל דבור ודבור שיצא מפי הקבה, מיד נתגשם אותו דבור והיה בו ככ ממשות עד שהיו רואין באויר כל האותיות פורחות וכאילו היה הכל כתוב לפניהם

You have to love that bold imagery!  And he’s not the only one with such a fantastic interpretation.  Rabbi Akiva, the great hero of the Talmud, says that “they saw a word of fire come out of the Mouth of Might, and be engraved upon the tablets.” (Mekhilta)  That explains the combination of ‘sounds and flashes of light.’ How wondrous, to imagine God, like some Almighty fire-breathing dragon, puffing out and burning the letters into stone.

– Then there’s Rashi, the King of the Commentators, who is brief as usual, and simply says:

They saw that which is heard, which would be impossible to see in any other place.

רואין את הנשמע, שאי אפשר לראות במקום אחר

Rashi doesn’t try to explain it away. The phrase is unusual, he suggests, precisely because it is meant to describe a highly unusual experience.  Somehow, in this extraordinary moment, they could actually see sound.  Their senses were expanded, and crossing over normal sensory boundaries, blending into one another.

There’s actually a fancy word for this phenomenon: synesthesia. Here’s a Wikipedia definition: “a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.” There are people in our world who actually have this condition. They hear music, for example, and report that every note has its own particular color to it.

I suppose the idea here, then, is that everyone at Sinai had these powers. The revelation at Sinai was a “synesthetic” experience.

Okay, building on this concept, I’ve saved the best for last…

One of the greatest of the Hasidic commentators is the Sfat Emet, a 19th-century Polish mystic who was also a brilliant Talmudic and Biblical interpreter.  And one of the best pieces of Sfat Emet I’ve ever read is on this verse.  He cites Rashi’s interpretation, which we’ve just explained, and then goes on:

We still have to understand, though, what the need is for this miracle.  What do I care if they just heard the sounds, without a miracle?  And we may answer: because Seeing and Hearing are two distinct experiences, one unlike the other.  And each one has an advantage and a disadvantage.  For the Seer looks at a thing in its completeness, exactly as it is.  But for the Hearer, the sound changes as it enters his ears, and it isn’t exactly the same sound that was originally made.  That’s the advantage of Seeing.  But with Hearing, there is an advantage that the sound truly enters inside of him through the ear, whereas the sight remains outside.  With this in mind, the verse teaches us that the Children of Israel had both advantages.  They received the words in the manner of “seeing sounds,” such that even though they truly entered inside of them, nevertheless they “saw” the sounds, without any distortion.

ויש להבין מה צורך בנס הזה מה לי אם ישמעו הקולות בלי נס. ואפשר לומר כי ראיה ושמיעה הם בענינים לא ראי זה כראי זה. ויש מעלה בכל אוחסרון. כי הרואה מסתכל דבר הנראה בשלימות כמו שהוא בלי שינוי. אבל השומע נשתנה הקול בהכנסו באזניו ואינו ממש כפי המשמיע. וזה מעלת הראיה. ובשמיעה יש מעלה שמכניס השמיעה בקרבו ממש על ידי האוזן אבל הראיה היא מבחוץ. מול זאת משמיענו הכתוב כי בני ישראל היה להם בהמעלות שקבלו את הדברות בבחינת רואין את הנשמע שאף שנכנסו לתוכם ממש מכל מקום ראו הקולות בלי שום שינוי.

Here we have one of the most amazing descriptions of the revelation I have ever come across.  Our scientific understanding of sight and hearing may be quite different now, of course, but his description corresponds well with our intuitive experience of seeing and hearing. Seeing is the sense human beings usually rely on most. We tend to assume we are seeing things exactly as they are, even though they remain at a distance. Hearing, meanwhile, is a weaker, less reliable sense. But it is more powerful to the extent that it actually enters us, and we can feel it vibrating inside of us.

The Sfat Emet’s larger point, however, is not as much about the technical description as it is about the spiritual.  What was so incredible about the experience of revelation was that, for that one moment, they heard God’s word exactly was it was, with no distortion, but also were able to completely internalize it.  The goal of seeking to understand an objective reality is to truly know things, as they actually are.  But the power of a subjective reality, though it may be somewhat distorted by a particular perspective, is that it is personal – we make it our own and and through it we find meaning.

In the moment of revelation, somehow the objective and the subjective – the seeing and the hearing – merged.  The Children of Israel were able to understand God as God meant to be understood, but to personalize that understanding in the way that was most meaningful for them.  In other words, for that one moment, God and Humanity were truly communicating.


About Rabbi David Kasher

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