I was calling the hospital with a name and all of a sudden the line went silent. After 10 seconds, I said, ‘are you still there?’ and the operator said, ‘yes!’ Have you ever had one of those cell phone conversations where you're talking for 5 minutes only to realize that you've been engaged in a soliloquy?
Many years ago, around the water cooler, my colleagues and I were having a theoretical conversation about whether, if we had to choose, whether we’d rather be deaf or blind. The consensus of the non-scientific survey was that not seeing was a far better fate than not hearing.
Our Torah portion begins with the idea that seeing is important. The ancient Menorah in the Tabernacle is one of the most salient symbols of our tradition. There isn’t a sanctuary in the world without one and the light it was always supposed to emit in the ancient Temple has been displaced into a powerful and separate receptacle: The Eternal Light. The light emitted by the ancient Menorah, something that was supposed to always be lit, has become more important than the object itself.
So if light is so important, why is the Menorah only in the holy place and not in the holy of holies? Further, why is the light of the Menorah disassociated from the place of the speaking, mentioned at the end of last week’s portion, between the heads of the two Cherubs on the top of the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies?
And it’s not just a Biblical prejudice. Our tradition, wisely I suggest, prefers hearing to seeing.
Let me count the ways:
1. No one gets to see God as God is not visible, but a few get to hear God. Today we hear God's word through the reading of the Torah.
2. We are commanded to HEAR that God is one, not See that God is one. We say ‘Shma Yisrael’ not ‘R’eh Yisrael.’
3. We tell ourselves at least twice daily not to be seduced by that which we see, a caution against idolatry.
So, the question is WHY the preference of hearing over seeing?
Here’s my answer: Sound and light, as experienced by human sensory apparatus, represent a very limited part of their respective spectra. We can hear from 20 to 32,000 Hertz waves whereas cats can hear up to 65,000 and bats 130,000 Hertz. When it comes to light, we can see just a small sliver of the electro magnetic spectrum, from 400 to 700 nano-meters of wavelength, leaving out everything from gamma rays to radio waves on the opposite extremes of the spectrum. Even though both sound and visible light are both part of spectra that extend beyond our capacity to sense, we intuitively assume that what we hear is only part of the truth whereas we generally conclude that which we see is somewhat MORE true. After all, no one says that “Hearing is Believing.” Perhaps this why we read this past week during Shavuot that the Israelites ‘See the Voices’ ‘Ro-im et haKolot’. Some interpret this as synesthesia, a miraculous ability to see sound; some interpret this as a sign that God cured all the blind so they could see.
I think it may be simpler than that: Two senses are better than one in making sense of what God has to communicate with us. The essence of the Divine is hidden (in the ark and the Torah) and requires intelligence, literacy and an eternal light to guide us in interpreting its relevance.
By the way, the preference for blindness over deafness from that water cooler conversation was a simple one: the feeling of isolation.
As bad as it would be to not be able to see the Torah, not hearing it would be far worse.