The Sceptic Blog

Random thoughts of a random chappy

Sight and sound: how we see and hear the world

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1. In this morning’s Torah reading Yisro hears and reacts (Shemos 18:1). He hears world news available to everybody else – news about the Jews’ exit from Egypt – but he has a greater than normal capacity to understand the implications, and to allow them to cause him to change his entire mode of life and to become a monotheist.

2. Later in the reading we have a physical impossibility – the Jews at Mount Sinai see voices (Shemos 20:19). That could indicate an entirely transcendental experience; or it could suggest merely a heightened perception, an enhancement of the natural sense of vision to a degree at which it was capable of perceiving the sounds. We can prove which it was from Rashi: he comments (from the Mechilta) that “all the nation saw” shows that no blind people were at Sinai. If by seeing sounds we were referring to something wholly unnatural, why should blind people be less able to do it than sighted people? So it must have been a natural use of sight, but enhanced to an unusual degree of refinement.

3. Both these are the essence of the Jewish approach to the world. We do not claim to be able to hear or see things that other people cannot. But we believe that concentration on spiritual values can lead human beings to be able to understand more of what they hear, and to see aspects of happenings that other might miss. The world is full of blessings and miracles, but we need to train ourselves to notice them and to understand their implications.

4. This also explains something about the nature of ruach hakodesh. Some people have trained their spiritual sensitivities, by close adherence to Torah values, so that they understand more than I do of what God wants from the world and is doing to the world. By consulting them I may not learn things that I did not already know, but I may come to understand them better or to see aspects of them that were hidden to me. Similarly, when chassidim seek a brochoh from a Rebbe they are asking him to apply his more refined understanding of the world to confirm whether they are moving in paths that make proper use of their blessings and that reflect understanding of events around them.

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Written by Daniel Greenberg

January 26, 2008 at 7:42 pm

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