Did the Jews see thunder at Mount Sinai?
By: Rabbi Ari Shishler
Can you imagine what it must have been like to receive the Torah at Sinai? Close to three million Jews camped at the foot of the mountain as Moses ascended to collect G-d’s Code for Life. The presentation of the Torah was dramatic. The Torah describes raging fire on the mountainside, thick clouds over the peak, thunder, lightning, and the booming voice of the Al-mighty. Sinai marked the greatest Divine revelation in history.
One curious detail in the story is that the Torah says, “And the entire nation saw the voices and lightning.” Lightning, yes, but who sees sound? Rashi, like the Midrash before him, interprets this to mean that they saw what you’d usually hear and heard what you’d usually see. It seems bizarre and leaves us with two questions. Firstly, are we meant to believe that the Israelites saw the Divine voice and heard lightning? Secondly, G-d only performs miracles when necessary; what value could there be in this supernatural experience?
Perhaps the answer is that we don’t only see with our eyes. When we understand what someone explains to us, we tell them that we ‘see’ their point. G-d’s presentation at Sinai was full of new information that would shape the way Jews live. Rather than be overwhelmed by a deluge of knowledge, the people saw Hashem’s message clearly.
Another angle is that, although Sinai happened thousands of years before Powerpoint, G-d used a multimedia presentation to unveil the Torah. Some commentators suggest that as G-d spoke each word, it morphed into a floating visual image for everyone to see. Sinai with subtitles.
That all explains what G-d did, not why. Judaism believes that Hashem only does necessary miracles. He must have spoken clearly enough for all to hear and comprehend, so that doesn’t yet explain why He would want us to see the words too. There must be a deeper meaning.
Visual experiences are altogether different to hearsay. When you watch a magnificent sunset, you absorb every detail at once. Were you to describe that sunset to a friend over the phone, you’d need fifteen minutes of talk to convey what your eyes see in a second. Even if you described the scene perfectly, the listener would not experience a fraction of the beauty you do.
Sight and sound represent our relationship with the physical and spiritual realities. We see physical things; we hear about spiritual concepts. We relate to the material more than the ethereal. We know when our body needs food far quicker than when our soul needs inspiration. We are drawn to golf before Gemorah, markets ahead of minyans. Like it or not, this is how G-d made us. Our job is to switch our reality. Rather than see the world for what it is, the Torah trains us to discern what it could become. Every instruction in Torah invites us to reinvent physical space into a channel for Divine revelation.
This isn’t easy to achieve, so Hashem gave us a headstart when He gave us the instruction manual. When we stood at Sinai, G-d flipped our consciousness for a brief period. What we were used to seeing – the here and now – faded into the nebulous reality of hearsay. And the Divine reality – of which we had always only heard rumours – radiated in full HD. G-d pulled back the curtain at Sinai to allow us a glimpse of what we would create through Torah. Then He reverted us to only seeing what’s in front of our noses so that we could search for and achieve the permanent upgrading of our reality to match His.