Parshas Yisro is the Sedra of the Ten Commandments. Just as the Ten Commandments were part of a unique monumental event at Mattan Torah, so aspects of the whole process are revealed again this week.
As explained in detail in The Ladder Up, the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai to Moshe Rabbeinu and Am Yisrael over 3,300 years ago, and from that moment there was a change in the spiritual and physical worlds forever. Prior to that instant, the spiritual was spiritual, the physical was physical, and the two did not in any way impact one on another. The novel development of Mattan Torah was that HaShem delegated to Am Yisrael the power to interfere with spirituality through their involvement with physicality. After this moment, whenever a Jew puts on tefillin, not only does he do a physical act with a couple of boxes some straps and parchments of Torah, he actually causes a spiritual change. Furthermore, when Jews behave in a manner consistent with Torah and mitzvos they actually cause a spiritual change for the benefit of all mankind. When they do not so behave, they interfere negatively to the loss of mankind.
At the time of the giving of the Torah this extraordinary moment was accompanied by thunder, lightning and tens of miracles.
One of those events was that the whole of Am Yisrael saw the Voices. There is a difference of opinion in the Mechilta between Rebbe Yishmael and Rebbe Akiva. Rebbe Yishmael says they saw that which was capable of being seen and they heard that which was capable of being heard. Rebbe Akiva disagrees and maintains that there was a special miracle; they saw that which is normally heard, (they saw the thunder) and they heard that which was normally seen, (they heard the lightning).
Nature is a concealment of HaShem; nature is the methodology by which HaShem creates apparently independent existence. If there were to be no nature, everything in creation would be nullified in the blaze of G-dly light. In order to have the illusion of separate existence, there is created the Curtain of nature.
As we have seen, the task of the nations of the world is to study and work with that curtain, building and forming it for the benefit of mankind. As we see in more detail elsewhere in this book, the work of Am Yisrael is to bring that which is behind that Curtain into nature.
When a miracle takes place, HaShem temporarily disturbs or interferes with or suspends this Curtain of nature.
In order to understand the secret of the interference with nature we are discussing, the Rebbe first explains the difference between seeing and hearing.
Seeing is a much deeper and more certain sensation than hearing. If one sees something, one is certain of that fact. If you bump into a red Honda on the road, remonstrate with the other idiot driver who shouldn't have been there in the first place with his red Honda and then go home; no matter how many times anyone tells you that the Honda was blue, gray or white, you will not change your mind that that Honda was red. Why? Because you saw it. In fact, we have a very interesting law in Halachah, that a witness to an event cannot judge it. The reason is very poignant. The person cannot, once he has been a witness, be relied on to form an independent opinion.
This is not so with hearing. When one hears something, the level of certainty is much less because hearing does not so imprint itself in the soul.
Furthermore, sight allows a greater grasp of physicality than does sound which is more intangible.
The argument between Rebbe Yishmael and Rebbe Akiva is very profound. It is an argument not only about whether Am Yisrael saw the thunder and heard the lightning. The question they are discussing is whether we, Am Yisrael, as human beings received the Torah at a spiritual level or at a physical level. Did we receive it physically in the way one sees something being part of nature, or spiritually out of the bounds of nature more as one hears that something?
Rebbe Akiva insists that the miracle was that we took on board something undeniably spiritual with the same physical certainty as the recognition of the red Honda. Conversely, and equally importantly, all that which was physical around then lost its focus as the physical was newly perceived with its spiritual connotations. The ability to do this today is harder for most, but still exists. The Ruziner Rebbe, while still a boy, was once playing in his little garden when he was reminded of the approach of Shabbos by his elder brother. The little boy looked at the sky and then agreed. When questioned by his brother on how he knew, he explained he could see the heavens changing. From the moment of Mattan Torah the two levels of perception were both available to Am Yisrael interchangeably. That was the miracle. The miracle was that HaShem's revelation of the Torah was a revelation of spirituality in a way that was absolutely physical, together with a revelation that physicality lost its focus to its spiritual source.
Now since all Torah is true, and whenever there is a disagreement in the Talmud both arguments are true, what of the position of Rabbi Yishmael? What is so deeply riveting and exciting about seeing what is to be seen and hearing what is to be heard?
The thrilling answer is really familiar to every reader at one level or another. Rabbi Yishmael is really saying that for a Jew there is no big deal about taking on board G-dliness with the certainty of physicality when he breaks out of his boundaries. Every Jew does that. Every Jew walks to his car talking to G-d. Every Jew has a private, personal dialogue with G-d based on a personal relationship with Him. Some more observant, some are less observant, some keep nothing and may even pretend that they do not believe in G-d; nevertheless all Jews function in terms of their private relationship with Him. So it is no great statement, says Rabbi Yishmael that we perceive G-dliness with the same certainty that we perceive that the Honda is red. That was not the point of Mattan Torah. The point of Mattan Torah was to empower Am Yisrael to bring G-dliness into physicality, so making a dwelling place for HaShem in the lowest of all possible worlds - the physical world. So, says Rebbe Yishmael, Am Yisrael were elevated to an extraordinary level at Mattan Torah; it would have been easy for HaShem to show us to see what was normally heard. We do so anyway! The amazing aspect of Mattan Torah, says Rebbe Yishmael is that we are empowered to take physicality and make from that physicality, G-dliness! We saw what was normally seen and it is our task to convert that into G-dliness. We heard what was normally heard and it is our job to bring that down into physicality.
So which level was more important? The answer is that both are equally important. Just as at Mattan Torah at the time of the giving of the Torah so it is for every Jew in every generation and so it is now. Both levels are vitally important. We have the ability, to grasp spirituality and hang on to it on a daily basis; equally importantly we have the obligation of taking that G-dliness and introducing it into physicality. We learn the laws of not stealing, for example, and introduce them into our daily business activity; we take the mitzvos and with them override everyday life's temptations, digging them into the soil of our successes. The moment of the greatness of this awesome responsibility glows this week. This week every Jew can access from his spiritual subconscious the opportunity and the obligation to see spirituality with the certainty of the red Honda and to hear physicality's spiritual source with the clarity made only possible by the soul. More importantly, the Ten Commandments are reviewed as the grid and fulcrum of our entire existence, elevating our mundane, giving purpose and fulfillment to our lives as Jews.
- (Back to text) Secrets of the Festivals, Ch. 8.
- (Back to text) The following explanation is based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. VI, p. 119ff.
- (Back to text) Tales of the Tzaddikim, Vol. II, p. 421.