And All the People Saw the Thunder
“The more one looks, the greater the light becomes, and greater is the insight and understanding of that vision.”
The Zohar in Parshat Balak relates the following fascinating story:
Rabbi Elazar, Rabbi Abba, and some of their students spent some time in the house of Rabbi Yosi in Pakiyin. There they witnessed first-hand an incident of Techiyas Hamaisim [Resurrection of the Dead]. They then departed to visit the home of Rabbi Elazar’s father-in-law, but the way was long and the sun was very hot. They passed a beautiful field full of variegated flowers and flowing streams and decided to rest there. Rabbi Elazar commented, “This is such a wonderful place to refresh ourselves.” As they were sitting, a large snake passed by. Rabbi Elazar addressed the snake, “Snake, snake, alter your route, because the man whom you were on your way to kill has already regretted his sins and done a complete Teshuva.” Rabbi Abba was incredulous to see Rabbi Elazar conversing with the snake and inquired about the conversation’s content. Rabbi Elazar assured him that all would be explained later. The snake was confused, but Rabbi Elazar assured him that his intended “hit” had completely changed his life and was no longer in need of punishment. However, Rabbi Elazar told him that a certain evil non-Jew, who had committed various crimes against a Jew, was sleeping in the snake’s own hideaway. Rabbi Elazar instructed him to go and kill this miscreant straight away. The snake slithered away and disappeared. Rabbi Elazar commented to his students how amazing it was that had we not been here, several travesties would’ve been committed by this snake. A Jew who had committed a sin and was sentenced in Heaven to immediate death at the hands of the snake regretted his action, and when he confessed, he undertook never to do that sin again. He was therefore saved from having to undergo divine punishment.
The colleagues asked Rabbi Elazar how he knew all this? He answered, “My father, Rabbi Shimon, taught me certain signs which helped me recognise what was happening.” The colleagues persisted, “Okay, so maybe that’s how you understood what was happening with the snake, but how did you know that the Jew had turned his life around? Rabbi Elazar said to them that he noticed that the snake’s scales and tail were both erect, and he was moving very quickly, which is an obvious indication that he’s going to kill someone. A voice from heaven attempted to arrest his progress, but the snake would not listen, because when a snake has a mission, he never lets go until he’s given other prey instead. This is a dominant trait of the snake, both the primaeval snake that tempts man, and the maternal snake that punishes man.
The students inquired further: “We understand how you knew all about this snake and the repenting Jew, but how did you know about the evil non-Jew, sleeping in the snake’s cave?” Their Rebbe answered, “The same voice that told the snake to leave the Jew alone gave instructions concerning the snake’s alternate victim. The students were awestruck, but Rabbi Elazar urged them to come quickly because the snake had already done its work. They reached a certain rock with a cave, and saw a non-Jew no longer alive, with the snake coiled around his ankles. Next to the dead man was a purse full of gold coins which he had stolen from a particular Jew, after beating him. Rabbi Elazar said, “Let us praise Hashem because everyone has fulfilled their mandate.” They then returned to the same field where they had rested previously.
While they were still in the field, the Jewish victim passed by, bruised and exhausted from the heat of the sun. He completely accepted his suffering and loss as being the will of Hashem but had only one ‘complaint’. “I have an elderly mother and father and have no money to support them, and about this I am worried. Furthermore, I’m very upset because some of the money that was in that purse belongs to a very poor person who was going to use it to marry off his daughter. “Master of the Universe,” he cried, “It is the pain of the poor person that I feel most keenly.”
Rabbi Elazar assuaged the man and said, “Don’t worry! Your innocence is the cause of this miracle. Take the purse and you’ll see what Hashem is going to do on your behalf. The man accompanied the Rabbis back to the cave, where the money and dead non-Jew were lying. The snake was still wrapped around his body. The man prostrated himself on the ground and thanked and praised Hashem for the tremendous miracle that was done for him. He stood up and kissed Rabbi Elazar and the colleagues, saying that he really understands that the miracle was done on their merits and not on his own. Rabbi Elazar thanked the snake for his loyal service and blessed him with a long life in which he would never have to kill another person. Rabbi Elazar instructed the victim to take the purse of money, but not the clothing or possessions of the non-Jew, because they were suffused with spiritual impurity. He was instructed to go to a certain town and find a particular man whose wife had died, and give him the golden coins, because that man has a son called Shimon who set off on an overseas business trip, and the son of this dead, non-Jew stole from him golden coins, and gave them to his father to watch for him. These were the very coins that were now in this man’s possession.
Rabbi Abba now confronted Rabbi Elazar. “Until now, everything you did was completely beyond our comprehension, but now we are completely befuddled! How was the Rebbe able to know all of this?” Rabbi Elazar candidly related, “This is not from what my father taught me, but it is the Ruach Hakodesh [Divine inspiration] which I have, and through it I’m able to see all of reality, and what I see using my intellect is as authentic and dinkum as if I see it through my physical eyes.”
Rav Moshe Cordovero asks: what does it mean that Rabbi Elazar saw with his intellect as if he saw it with his physical eyes? He explains that our neshomas really know everything that exists and everything that is happening in the entire world. In the same way that a physical man can view his body from top to bottom, so too the spiritual neshoma knows the entire expanse of the spiritual world, without any impediments. Every neshoma was created with this clarity. However, when a neshoma descends to earth, and is clothed in the realm of physicality, that carnality acts as a screen that separates and blinds his spiritual eyes. Tzaddikim whose souls are not encased in physicality because they remain connected to the highest levels of spirituality, retain their acuity to view everything going on in the world. Rabbi Elazar was on such a level and was therefore privy to all that he revealed in the above narrative.
Sight is indeed one of the physical senses, but there is also a concept called spiritual sight. This point is amplified by the Maharsha in Maseches Shabbos who says, “It appears to me that a person has both physical and intellectual sight, and these are in fact why we have two eyes. When the entire Jewish nation said ‘we will do, and we will listen’, that decision was made completely with their spiritual eye, and what was intended to happen was that our physical performance of all of Hashem’s commandments would be performed by the coordination and synchronisation of our two eyes, spiritual and physical in tandem.”
The Shela Hakadosh says that when Hager, maidservant of Sarah, merited to see three angels, she was unsure whether what she had seen in a vision was indeed an angel of Hashem. Was it a real spiritual light or was it just something physical? She proved that it must have been a spiritual interaction because, had it been something physical, it would have been impossible for her to see one thing after another. This is because it is well known that once one sees a very bright light, let’s say, for example, one looks at the sun, his eyes become temporarily unable to see anything else. The exact opposite is true regarding a spiritual vision. The more one looks, the greater the light becomes, and greater is the insight and understanding of that vision, and that’s what Hager understood: it must have been a spiritual vision, because since I could see all of that after what I had already seen, that insight must have been spiritual.
Thus, it becomes clear that spiritual sight is an experience which once one is privileged to penetrate, is constantly growing and ever intensifying. Therefore, when Rabbi Elazar originally saw a snake on its way to kill, the students were amazed and naturally assumed it was some kind of physical vision, and indeed at that point Rabbi Elazar agreed with them and explained that he understood this based on what he had learned from his father, Rabbi Shimon. Subsequently, as the vision became deeper and more clairvoyant, and he revealed to them more and more hidden things, he then was able to share with his students that this was in fact emanating from what he was able to achieve using his spiritual sight, rooted deep in his soul.
With this introduction, we can now approach and try to understand the famous words of Rashi on the verse “and all of the nation saw the thunder and the lightning”, about which Rashi says, “We can prove from the above verse and others, which relate the story of Matan Torah, that at Har Sinai all the blind, deaf, and mute people were cured from their challenges. What Rashi is telling us is that beyond the unprecedented medical miracle that occurred at Sinai, we are being told something far more fundamental and cosmic. Based on our definition, a ‘blind’ person is one who is unable to use his spiritual eyes to see from one end of the world to the other, with deep understanding of all that transpires. At the moment of the Giving of the Torah, every single Jew had the ability to access an all-encompassing perception and comprehension of the entire universe, and all that was occurring everywhere.
The learning of Torah affords us the opportunity to have spiritual sight. The Mishnah in Avot says that someone who learns Torah for its own sake has the secrets of Torah revealed to him. Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, in his commentary Ruach Chaim, explains that all the deep secrets of the Torah are actually obvious and revealed. The only problem is our eyes are blind to be able to discern them. Often, we battle long and hard to understand the most basic concepts, and kick ourselves afterwards why we needed to work so hard to understand something that was so patently obvious. The real truth is that it is was because of our hard work that it became so obvious. This concept is relevant on all levels of Torah study. The analogy we can best relate to is when we lose our keys and we turn the house over looking for them, and then find them lying right in front of our face. The physicality we wallow in erects barriers of darkness, and precludes clarity of spiritual matters, but when a person invests time, energy, and hard work, they slowly begin to peel away the gossamer of those “blackout curtains” and allow us to see things in the brilliant simplicity of their reality. When we pray each day “[Hashem,] light up our eyes with Your Torah”, we are really asking that our sincere efforts in trying to study the Torah bear the fruit that will facilitate penetrating insight into the depths of Hashem’s brilliance.
The Chasam Sofer is reported to have said that if someone does not know all of the Torah and all the opinions of the Halachic commentators, he can never have Divine inspiration, but someone who does know all of the Shas and the Poskim and he learns with the correct motivation, unquestionably, will have Ruach Hakodesh. The Gemora says that a child in utero is taught the entire Torah and is able to see from one end of the world to the other, because when a person merits to know the whole Torah, the natural outcome are the spiritual eyes that will facilitate being able to see from one end of the world to the other. However, let us get real! We don’t see thunder, not many of us are proficient in all of Shas, and none of us really are able to focus beyond our field of vision, so does any of this have relevance to us?
The Kli Yakar explains that when it says the Jews were able to see the sounds, it means that every word that Hashem uttered immediately transformed into something so physical that the Jews could actually see it. It was as if it was written down in front of them. The proof is that when Moshe broke the two tablets after the sin of the Golden Calf, the actual letters rose up to heaven and reappeared on the second tablets that Moshe brought to Hashem for Him to write on. So, the physical letters were, in essence, spiritual.
The students of Rav Chaim Vital once asked: “We are told that every day a heavenly voice is heard to say, ‘Return wayward children.’ Is it possible for us to hear that sound?” Rav Chaim responded that yes, during the coming day they would hear that heavenly voice. Later that day the students were walking with their Rebbe in the marketplace and encountered two Arabs arguing. One of them screamed at the other, “How are you not embarrassed to steal from me! don’t you know there is a G-d in heaven?” The students attached no significance to this conversation, but when they challenged Rav Chaim at the end of the day that they had not heard any heavenly voice, he patiently pointed out that the heavenly voice appeared in many different forms, sometimes from a Rabbinic lecture, sometimes from a child, and sometimes, even from an Arab in the marketplace. It is just incumbent on a person to think about whatever he sees and hears, and understand that every bit of information we assimilate is coming to us as a directive for how we are to serve Hashem, irrespective of what methodology Hashem uses to send us that heavenly voice.
A woman approached a great Chassishe Rebbe in tears, complaining about her husband who had run away and abandoned her and the family. The Rebbe comforted her and told her that if she went to the local hostel of the community she would find him there. She followed the Rebbe’s advice and, lo and behold, there was her husband! The community was abuzz with this new demonstration of the Rebbe’s Ruach Hakodesh. The Rebbe negated the claims and explained that usually he spends all of his time in Torah and Davening and has no idea what is happening around him. That morning, however, he happened to overhear two men discussing a guest who had recently appeared in the local hostel. He had wondered why Hashem chose to expose him to this seemingly random information. When the woman came to him later that morning, he understood…
The more we involve ourselves in Torah and service of Hashem, the more we develop our spiritual visual acuity, and will merit to “see the thunder” and discover the constant messages that Hashem sends us.
- Shmos 20:15 ↑