Seeing the Sounds
After the Torah relates God's giving the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, (Exodus 20: 1-14) it goes on to describe some aspects of that monumental event as it was experienced by the Jewish people.
And all the people saw the sounds and the flames, the sound of the Shofar and the mountain smoking; and the people saw and shuddered and stood at a distance.
Saw the sounds - RASHI: They saw that which is [ordinarily] heard; that which is impossible to see otherwise.
WHAT IS RASHI SAYING?
Rashi is telling us to take the word see (in Hebrew 'ro'im') literally. They literally could see the sound waves of the voice of God as He spoke. In modern psychology, this is called synesthesia, when the sense experience crosses over to another tract. See the Ibn Ezra who describes this occurrence as a given fact. While the Ibn Ezra, being somewhat of a scientist in his time, considers seeing sounds as a conceivable possibility, Rashi saw it as a miracle. Actually the Hebrew word ro'im can also mean to perceive, which is to receive information through any one of the five senses. And this is what Rashi is stressing: 'Ro'im' does not mean to perceive as in to hear the sounds, which would be quite a normal experience; instead says Rashi, it means to see the sounds, which is a miraculous event.
With this in mind, what would you ask of Rashi?
A Question: Why does Rashi reject the more natural interpretation here, which would seem to be closer to P'shat, and opt for the miraculous interpretation? Rashi certainly strives for P'shat interpretations, when they are appropriate.
Can you think why he choose seeing sounds over hearing sounds in this verse?
An Answer: While hearing sounds is certainly more normal, Rashi deliberately chose a supernatural explanation because we are talking about the most supernatural event that ever occurred in history – the Divine Revelation at Sinai. Rashi is following a principle of Torah interpretation which is central to a fuller understanding of the Torah. That principle is to see a verse within its larger context. Once our verse is seen as part of the story of the Sinai revelation, then hearing sounds is but a minor miracle in relation to the larger event which took place at that time.
Let us pursue this interpretation further, to see its deeper implications.
A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING
The late Lubavicher Rebbe gave the following insightful interpretation of this Rashi-comment:
Our two senses of seeing and hearing have different advantages and disadvantages. Seeing affords us a very clear and certain perception of the world. None of our other senses can give us the kind of knowledge about something in this world that seeing can. On the other hand, hearing affords us a different benefit. Hearing enables us to learn about concepts, abstract ideas. These cannot be seen, but can be understood though hearing.
In summary, seeing has an advantage for things in our material world. Hearing has an advantage for things in the spiritual, abstract world.
At Sinai, says the Lubavicher Rebbe, the Jew saw the sounds of God's voice. For the Jew present at Sinai, God's ideas (Mitzvos) had the same clarity and certitude about that which he heard as if he had actually seen them. Seeing is believing and the Jew saw the Divine mystery at Sinai.