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Re’eh (5768) – Seeing and Hearing

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TO APPRECIATE THE ORIGINALITY OF JUDAISM – I HAVE ARGUED MORE THAN ONCE IN THESE STUDIES – we must grasp one fundamental point. Unlike almost every other culture in ancient and modern times, Judaism is a religion of sound, not sight; of hearing rather than seeing; of the word as against the image.

The G-d encountered by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, by Moses in the burning bush, and by the Israelites as they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, came not as an appearance, a visible presence, but as a voice – commanding, promising, challenging, summoning. Listen to how insistent Moses is on this point:

Then G-d spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no image; there was only a voice . . . Be very careful, since you did not see any image on the day that G-d spoke to you out of the fire at Horeb.

The G-d of Israel, G-d at the heart of reality, cannot be seen. Hence the severity of the prohibition against making images. Idolatry in the Torah is more than the absurdity of worshipping things we ourselves have made (“Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths but cannot speak; they have eyes but cannot see . . .”). It is the very idea that G-d is to be identified with anything visible. G-d is beyond what we can see – not simply because He is so much greater, vaster, than anything our eyes can encompass, but because He belongs to a different dimension of reality altogether.

Hence one of the key words of Devarim/Deuteronomy (which means “words”) is Shema, “Hear” or “Listen”:

Hear [shema] O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is one.

If you surely hear [shamoa tishme’u] the commandments I give you this day, to love the Lord your G-d and serve him with all your heart and all your soul . . .

Moses and the Levitical priests spoke to all Israel saying: Pay attention and listen [u-shema], Israel . . .

Listen O heavens and I will speak; earth, hear [ve-tishma] the words of my mouth.

In one form or another, the verb shema appears no less than 92 times in the course of the book.

Our sedra, however, seems to represent a counter-example. Re’eh, its first word, means “See.” On the face of it, Moses is making an appeal to the eye, not the ear. However, if we examine the role of sight in Judaism we discover something strange. Often, when the Torah seems to be using a verb or metaphor for sight it is actually referring to something not seen at all, but rather, heard.

One example can be found in the great opening of the book of Isaiah:

The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah:

Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth!

For the LORD has spoken:

“I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me . . .
Hear the word of the LORD ,
you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the law of our G-d,
you people of Gomorrah!”

The initial verse speaks of a “vision” that Isaiah “saw.” Yet it contains no visual imagery whatsoever. What Isaiah “sees” is a call, sounds, speech, a proclamation, not a sight or scene or symbol. Yet again, the key verbs are “hearing” and “listening.”

More striking still is an episode in the first chapter of the book of Jeremiah:

The word of the LORD came to me: “What do you see, Jeremiah?” “I see the branch of an almond tree,” I replied. The LORD said to me, “You have seen correctly, for I am watching to see that My word is fulfilled.”

Jeremiah “sees” an almond tree. This really is a visual image. Yet immediately we discover that what is significant is not the appearance of the tree but the sound of its name. In Hebrew the word for almond tree, shaked, sounds like the verb meaning “to watch,” shoked. The entire passage is a verbal pun. Jeremiah “sees” but G-d teaches him to listen. Indeed the text begins and ends with a reference to “word” – “The word of the Lord” and “My word is fulfilled.”

Precisely the same thing occurs at the beginning of our sedra.

See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse — the blessing if you listen to [tishme’u] the commands of the LORD your G-d that I am giving you today; the curse if you do not listen [tishme’u] to the commands of the LORD your G-d and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known.

The text seems to be about seeing. In fact, though, it is about listening to something heard, namely a blessing and a curse. The non sequitur is so marked that some English translations render the verb re’eh not as “see” but as “understand.”

In one sense, however, Moses is referring to something visible, as the text goes on to make clear:

When the LORD your G-d has brought you into the land you are entering to possess, you are to proclaim on Mount Gerizim the blessings, and on Mount Ebal the curses.

Later in Devarim this ceremony is specified in greater detail:

When you have crossed the Jordan into the land the LORD your G-d is giving you, set up some large stones and coat them with plaster. Write on them all the words of this law when you have crossed over to enter the land the LORD your G-d is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the LORD, the G-d of your fathers, promised you. And when you have crossed the Jordan, set up these stones on Mount Ebal, as I command you today, and coat them with plaster . . .”

On the same day Moses commanded the people:

When you have crossed the Jordan, these tribes shall stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin. And these tribes shall stand on Mount Ebal to pronounce curses: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali.

Both procedures – setting up the engraved stones, and the blessings and curses recited on the two mountains – are designed to give visual impact to an essentially auditory experience. Seeing, in Judaism, is ultimately about hearing. Israel is the people called on to reject images in favour of words; to discard appearances and follow, instead, the commanding voice.

No concept has proved more difficult to explain in modern times than the doctrine of Torah min hashamayim, “Torah from heaven.” The reason is that it has not been understood in the depth it demands. It is not simply about (though it includes) the Divine authorship of the Pentateuch, nor is it merely (though it is also) a statement about its authority. First and foremost it is an answer to the ultimate human question: Where do we find G-d?

Judaism’s answer is that G-d is found, first and foremost, not in the blinding light of the sun, nor in the majesty of mountains. He is not in the almost infinitely vast spaces of the universe, with its hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars. He is not even in the letters of the genetic code that give all life its structure and diversity. If this is where you seek G-d, says Judaism, you are looking in the wrong place. Indeed the mistake you are making consists in the very fact that you are looking at all.

G-d is to be found not by looking but by listening. He lives in words – the words He spoke to the patriarchs and matriarchs, prophets and priests; ultimately in the words of the Torah itself – the words though which we are to interpret all other words.

Why is G-d revealed in words? Because words are what makes us persons. Language makes homo sapiens unique. Because we have language, we can think. We can stand back, reflectively, from the data provided by our senses. We can ask questions. Human beings are the only species known to us in the universe capable of asking the question, Why?

Because we can speak as well as see, we can imagine a universe unlike the one we have seen every day until now. We can dream dreams, imagine alternatives, sketch utopias, formulate plans, construct intentions. Because of language – and only because of language – we are free and therefore morally responsible agents.

No doubt in some sense chimpanzees, flamingos, fruit bats and dolphins are free. They have nervous systems; they have eyes; they feel pain; they are capable of avoiding danger; within limits they know where to search for food. But they are not free in the sense in which human beings are free. We do not hold them to be responsible for their acts. We do not expect them to obey rules, nor do we hold them guilty when they kill. We do not judge them in courts of law.

The idea so popular among neo-Darwinians and socio-biologists that we are no more than “naked apes” is a fundamental error. To be sure, we share 98 per cent of our genes with the primates, but it is the other 2 per cent that counts. There are small differences that make all the difference – and it is language (the future tense, the question, the reflexive use of the words “I/me”) that makes the difference. We are human because we can speak and can therefore be held accountable for keeping or failing to keep our word.

Language does more than allow us to make plans. It allows us to communicate. Words create and solve one problem in particular. They create the problem of loneliness (known in philosophy as solipsism). Animals are conscious, but only human beings are self-conscious. Animals may be alone; only human beings feel lonely (“It is not good for man to be alone”). That is because only human beings can articulate the difference between “I” and “you” and know the abyss that lies between us.

But language solves the problem it creates. Because we can speak, we can communicate. Only I can feel my pain. You cannot experience it nor can I experience yours. But we can speak, converse, convey what we feel to one another. We can ask for help; we can respond to other people’s cry for help. We can share our hopes and fears. We can form moral bonds by sharing promises. The bridge across the abyss between self and other is constructed out of language. Our loneliness is redeemed by words.

G-d reveals Himself in speech. That is the revolutionary doctrine known as Torah min hashamayim, “Torah from heaven.” G-d is to be found in holiness, and the source, the template, the matrix of holiness is speech. All religions have holy places, holy objects, holy times, holy people. But in Judaism these are derivative not primary. Things are holy only because G-d has said so. Judaism is the religion of holy words.

Looking back on that long period of European history known as the Enlightenment, it is astonishing that serious thinkers could believe, yes, that G-d created the universe and endowed it with the form it has, but that is all (this is the view known as Deism: G-d created the world and then ceased to take any further part or interest in it). They found it possible to imagine G-d creating. They found it impossible to imagine G-d speaking. G-d, for them, was not personal. As with the Greeks, so with the Enlightenment philosophers: G-d was a force, a theoretical construct, the Being that brought being into being, the cause of causes, the metaphysical entity that gave rise to physical entities. G-d was an “It” not a “Thou.” He could create but not communicate. He was the G-d of science but not of speech. It is this doctrine, essentially Hellenistic, to which Judaism is opposed.

Judaism is the single greatest statement in the history of civilization that personhood is at the heart of being – that it is not random, accidental, or peripheral that we are persons; that we can speak and listen; that we can communicate and be communicated with. Only human beings can grasp the concept of the holy, that which is defined in and through a relationship with G-d. Our relationship with G-d is personal, therefore verbal, a matter of speech. G-d as He is in Himself is beyond us; but G-d in relationship with humanity goes to the core of our humanity and is therefore expressed in words.

If you seek G-d, turn your attention to language – not to people, places or objects. The hidden presence of G-d is everywhere. But the revealed presence of G-d is in the words He gave to humanity on the basis of which He made a series of covenants, first with Noah, then with Abraham, then with the Israelites at Mount Sinai. The Mosaic books constitute the covenant binding heaven and earth, G-d and mankind. Hence the philosophy of Israel – so different from that of ancient Greece, the European Enlightenment and contemporary science: To meet G-d is to listen to
G-d.

The apparent counterexample of Re’eh, “See,” turns out to be not a contradiction of this idea but a dramatic reiteration of it. “See, I am placing before you both a blessing and a curse.”

What the Israelites were asked to see was words.