“Seeing” sounds in sacred texts

“Seeing” sounds in sacred texts

Yitro | Exodus 18:1-20:23

Seeing is believing,” we say, knowing there is nothing so convincing as the power of sight. “Don’t you see?” we bellow at logically myopic opponents, until they concede, “Alright, I see what you mean!” We shouldn’t be surprised, then, to be told that divine thunder and lightning accompanied God’s appearance on Mt. Sinai, and that “The people saw the sounds and the lightning.”

But how could they see sounds? Sound is what you hear, not what you see. And sounds of what? Thunder, presumably, but the Torah just says “sounds.” What sounds were they, and how can sound be visible? 

Some commentators explain things literally. Kabbalist Moses Hagiz (1672-1751), for instance, thinks God altered the state of nature to imbue the Israelites’ ears with sight. A Hasidic interpretation elaborates on Hagiz: Belief supported by visual evidence is hardly faith; faith comes from relying on what people tell us, even though visual proof is absent; nonetheless, people trust what they see, so God let them see the truth — but with their ears, the organ of genuine faith.

Well, maybe; but I prefer an answer rooted in close textual reading. The Ten Commandments are given in Chapter 20: 1-14, and the information that “the people saw the sounds and the lightning” comes immediately afterward (20:15). But the thunder and lightning occur beforehand — part of God’s appearance on the mountain (19:16). Why did the people “see the sounds” a whole chapter later, only after Torah was revealed? 

That the people “saw the sounds” only after revelation is the key, because we really do see sounds when they are written down as text. If you are reading this column, for example, you are probably doing so with at least some implied cadence to your inner voice. You raise and lower your voice as you read a sentence; you emphasize words in italics. You actually do see sounds in written words.

The “sounds” that the Israelites saw were not God’s thunder, but God’s words of Torah that Moses heard and then wrote down. Maybe Moses enjoyed revelation directly from God’s mouth, but everyone else gets it only as writing.

Judaism insists that God’s word is still best accessed through sounds that we see: our sacred texts.

This trust in text is counter-intuitive. People searching for God look to the miracles of nature: the Grand Canyon, a starry night, the intricacies of the human body. Or, like Pharaoh, they want miracles that look like magic: rods that become snakes or plagues like frogs, hail, and supernatural darkness. 

The Talmud, however, discounts natural miracles as the way to God. In a famous debate, one rabbi tries to prove his point by making water run uphill and even summoning a heavenly voice, but the Talmud concludes that God is no longer known by such obvious oddities. The way to God is study of our texts. We study, debate, and form conclusions from what we read. “Turn it over again and again,” says the Mishnah, “for everything is in it.”

On a clear day, you can see forever, goes the saying. I, however, see forever in the fogginess of text: an opaque piece of Talmud with its Rashi, Tosafot, Rabbenu Asher, and all the other greats of Jewish tradition whose marginal markings I devour and whose presence in the text I see loud and clear as if I were in the same room with them.

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