The Experience

I woke up late on the day of the Ten Commandments. Look, stuff happens. When I finally jolted out of bed and ran towards the scene, I met someone coming from there. “Hey, I missed it!” I said. “What went on?”

I’ll bet you’re thinking he told me something like, “G‑d said He’s G‑d, no other gods, and we shouldn’t steal, kill or commit adultery.”

But he didn’t. It was more like this:

“You can’t imagine it! There was this bizarre thunder! And freaky lightning! The whole mountain was glowing in some weird fire-like light! And this shofar sound didn’t stop getting louder and louder and louder! We heard a voice coming from all directions at once. Then, next thing you know, it was like nothing existed but G‑d—I mean nothing. The whole world became totally unreal, and all there was was Him! The whole experience was such a knockout—over and over again. And you missed it?!”

Okay, so I made this up. Everyone was there, men, women and children, and all the souls of every Jew who will ever be. I’m just out to make a very Marshall McLuhan–esque the-medium-is-the-message point: That event at Mount Sinai wasn’t so much about content as it was about the experience. It wasn’t about hearing commands. It was about seeing G‑d. At Sinai, the medium was the message.And that experience was the message—that there’s nothing but G‑d.

And it was an interactive experience. Even though there was nothing but G‑d—so what was there to interact with? Okay, that’s a problem. But it had to be interactive, because the Torah introduces the Ten Commandments with the words, “G‑d said all these words, to say.”

Usually, “to say” means that Moses was to say this over to the Jewish people. But in this case, the Jewish people were right there (even this sleepyhead). So here, “to say” means something else—that the people were supposed to say something.

What were the people supposed to say? Depends on who you ask: Rabbi Yishmael or Rabbi Akiva.

The Dispute

Before we get into their dispute—which you can find in Mechilta, one of the most ancient collections of commentary on the book of Exodus—let me describe something of the personalities involved. Two diametrically opposed personalities.

Rabbi Yishmael was born into the priestly class. Some say he was the high priest. From childhood, he looked more like an angel than a human being.

Rabbi Akiva was a descendant of converts. He was an ignorant shepherd until the age of 40. Up until then, he said, if he would have met a scholar of Torah, he would have bit him.1 Then he turned around and worked his way up to become the greatest teacher of his time, and one of the greatest of history.

When these two clash, it’s not just two personalities clashing. It’s two faces of Torah looking in two opposite directions, one from the top down, one from the bottom up. When these two clash, it’s two faces of Torah clashing.And at the point of their intersection, we discover what Torah is all about at its very core.

Now back to what the people had to say to each of the Ten Commandments.

Rabbi Yishmael answers our question simply: Each time G‑d told them they were supposed to do something, everyone answered “Yes!” Each time G‑d told them they were not supposed to do something, everyone answered, “No!”

As in “I am G‑d . . .” receives “Yes, You are the only G‑d!” and “Don’t have other gods” receives “No, we won’t have any other gods!”

Rabbi Akiva disagrees. For every positive there was a “Yes!” And for every negative there was also a “Yes!” As in, “Yes, we will not have other gods!”

There’s something deep behind this argument. Where Rabbi Yishmael sees the negative as negative, Rabbi Akiva sees even the negative as positive. What’s going on?

Seeing Voices

Human interactivity is not their only topic of dispute concerning Sinai. They also argue over the multimedia experience itself. It makes sense that the two disputes are related.

The verse reads, “All the people saw the sounds and the lightning and the mountain aflame.”

Hold on: They saw the sounds?

Rabbi Yishmael dismisses that. It’s just poetically licensed language. They heard the sounds and they saw the sights.

Rabbi Akiva disagrees. They saw the sounds. And not only that: they heard the sights.

Dear Rabbi Akiva, what’s the point in that? Okay, we get the whole “medium is the message” idea. But what is the message of such a medium? In what way does seeing thunder or hearing lightning enhance the experience of Sinai? And what makes it so crucial to receiving Torah?What could be the message behind the medium of synesthesia?

Without getting into what sounds might look like, or how sights might sound (there are people who experience this—it’s called synesthesia), let’s strip this dispute of its superficial wrappings and get into what these two Torah titans are really discussing. Let’s look at how these two mediums—hearing and seeing—impact the human being.

Neurons devoted to visual processing occupy about 30 percent of the brain cortex, as compared with 8 percent for touch and just 3 percent for hearing. No wonder why if it’s visible in front of us, we take it as an objective reality. No wonder why, for us humans, seeing is believing.

For a dog, smelling is believing. For a shark, electroreception is believing (well, a major part of it). For a bat, hearing is believing. But when we humans hear something, it’s more of a secondhand, subjective experience. We’re not so convinced. It could have been all sorts of things that we heard. Or maybe we didn’t hear anything at all.

We use “hearing” in a different but similar sense: When we know about something because we heard it from someone else, or even read it in a blog or news story, we say, “Yes, I heard about that.” So hearing, to human beings, is a kind of secondhand experience.

And yet, that secondhand experience of hearing information has a certain advantage over seeing something in front of you. When you see something, you grasp it as a “thing that is.” When it’s not visible to you, but you hear the sounds it makes, or just hear about it, in a certain way you are more capable of dealing with the information this thing contains. Its isness is less real, it remains more abstract—and therefore it leaves more room for your imagination.

In court, we refer to secondhand evidence as “hearsay.” You hear information. You see a thing that is.And here’s a fascinating fact: In a Jewish court—which is generally a tribunal—the judges can decide the case only if their experience of that evidence is hearsay. The witnesses must be eyewitnesses, having seen the deed firsthand. But if any of the judges was there watching at the scene of the crime, he’s off the bench.

Why is that? Because the Torah demands that a court must attempt to exonerate the accused before incriminating him—and you can’t exonerate someone when you yourself saw him do the act. It’s become too much of a reality for you. You’re trapped within your own perception.

Which takes us back to Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva: When they argue over seeing and hearing, they’re really talking about something far more abstract. Seeing means it’s real to you. Hearing means it’s something you only induce from the evidence before you. So the argument really is about the message of Sinai. It’s about a shift that experience made in our perception of reality.

Existence by Implication

Rabbi Akiva says they saw the sounds. When G‑d said He’s the only G‑d, they didn’t just hear that. They saw that.

Up until then, they had heard about an underlying reality beneath this world of sensation and tangible stuff. Intuitively, it made sense. But it was nowhere as real as the rocks on the ground and the sun in the sky. Now, suddenly, that reality burst into center stage. G‑d said, “I am,” and that became their reality. Wherever they looked, all they saw was a world of endless divine energy, a perfect oneness of a Creator beyond all existence.

And they heard the sights. G‑d said to have no other gods, and otherness vanished. The busy world of multiple things and sensations which until now had been their obvious reality dissolved within this divine harmony, and could only be induced from the evidence.

What evidence? If G‑d was speaking to them, they must somehow exist.Well, if G‑d was saying they must work for six days and rest on the seventh, then there must be something called “work” that’s necessary to do, and time must exist. If G‑d was saying they must not worship idols, then there must be a world where the concept of something other than one G‑d must be thinkable. If G‑d was speaking to them and requiring that they respond, then they too must somehow exist.

Amazing—there is a world! G‑d, after all, desires we do something with it, and that desire renders it real. Somehow. By implication. Yet, once this radical paradigm shift of Sinai had taken place, what was previously obvious suddenly demanded a great deal of evidence and imagination.

Sinai was a revolution that turned the entire cosmic order on its head. Reality as we know it was shattered to reveal a deeper, singular truth behind all things.

Rabbi Yishmael hears out Rabbi Akiva and nods. Yes, Sinai exposed the façade of physicality. Yes, at Sinai infinite light poured down upon us. But with a goal: So that we earthly beings, within our earthly limitations, might welcome that light and allow it entry into our finite, natural world. And in a natural world, people don’t hear sights or see sounds. And you have to know that yes is yes and no is no—there’s stuff that’s good that must be embraced, and stuff that’s bad that must be rejected.

That’s Rabbi Yishmael. That’s what a kohen and a tzaddik-all-his-life is all about—channeling light, nurturing the world.

But Rabbi Akiva is a “master of return,” a man whose life is a perpetual exodus of leaving behind the person he was the day before, pulling back the curtains of the reality he has known until now. For him, life is about seeing a higher reality, beyond the horizon that the eye can perceive. He has transformed the darkness of his past into a great light, and so in all darkness he is able to perceive light. And when you do that, you see G‑d everywhere—not only in the “yes,” but in the “no” as well.

Because there is only yes. There is only One.

Crying and Laughing

There are two stories of Rabbi Akiva that demonstrate just how far he took that attitude:

Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva went up to Jerusalem. When they reached Mount Scopus, they tore their garments. When they came to the ruins of the Temple Mount, they saw a fox running out of the Holy of Holies. They began to cry, and Rabbi Akiva began to laugh.

They asked, “Akiva, why do you laugh?”

He asked, “And why do you cry?”

Said they to him: “Here is the place of which it is said, ‘The stranger that approaches it shall die,’ and now foxes walk through it! And we shouldn’t weep?!”

Said he to them: “That is why I laugh. For it is written, ‘I shall have bear witness for Me faithful witnesses—Uriah the priest and Zechariah the son of Yeverechiah.’”

“Now, what is the connection between Uriah and Zechariah? Uriah was in the time of the First Temple, and Zechariah was in the time of the Second Temple! But the Torah makes Zechariah’s prophecy dependent upon Uriah’s prophecy.”

“So I will explain: With Uriah, it is written: ‘Therefore, because of you, Zion shall be plowed as a field.’2 And here it is, plowed as a field and desolate.”

“With Zechariah, it is written, ‘Old men and women shall yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem . . . and the streets of the city shall be filled with boys and girls playing in its streets. . . . In those days, ten men of all the languages of the nations shall take hold of the fringe of a Jewish man’s garment, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’”3

“As long as Uriah’s prophecy had not been fulfilled, I feared that Zechariah’s prophecy may not be fulfilled either. But now that Uriah’s prophecy has been fulfilled, it is certain that Zechariah’s prophecy will be fulfilled.”

With these words they replied to him: “Akiva, you have consoled us! Akiva, you have consoled us!”4

The Temple lay in ruins, the Jewish people were in exile, and the Roman oppression had become unbearable. There may never have been a time as void of hope and promise in all of Jewish history.

But for Rabbi Akiva, all that lay before him was a transient state—a secondary reality. He heard it, but he saw beyond it. What he saw was a path to the fulfillment of a promise—the final exodus of his people and the ultimate of times for all peoples. Even within exile and desolation, even there he saw reason to laugh—the “yes” within the “no.”

Oneness in the Ultimate Darkness

How far can you take that? Rabbi Akiva took it all the way.

After the failed Bar Kochba revolt, the Romans prohibited the teaching of Torah in public. Rabbi Akiva defied the prohibition and was arrested. And then, the Talmud tells:

When the Romans brought out Rabbi Akiva to be executed, it was time to recite the Shema. They began torturing him by raking his skin with combs, and he prepared himself to accept the yoke of heaven by saying Shema Yisrael—Hear O Israel, G‑d is our G‑d, G‑d is one.

His students cried out, “To such a point?”

He responded, “All my life I was pained over this verse, ‘You shall love G‑d with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.’ What does it mean to love G‑d with all your soul? It means, even if He should take your soul from you. All my life I ached for the opportunity to fulfill those words. And now that it has arrived, I should not fulfill it?”

He sustained his recitation of the last word “one,” so that his soul departed from him with that “one.” A voice from heaven was heard, declaring, “Fortunate are you, Akiva, that your soul departed with ‘one.’”5

It is one thing to see hope glimmering within the embers of the Temple ruins. It is another to see the oneness of G‑d within the brutality of man against man, in a cruel and tortuous death rewarded for the deed of teaching Torah—never mind that it was his own death. The Talmud continues that even the ministering angels expressed their outrage, crying out to the Holy One, blessed be He, “Is this Torah and this its reward?!”

If the angels could not see, we cannot be expected to see. If they who do not suffer were outraged, we certainly have the right to be outraged at the horrors that have befallen our people. And to demand.

But then, If Torah is to enter our world, the “yes” must be found even in the darkest “no.”if Torah is to enter our world, if Sinai is to have its effect, if we are to fulfill our mission in this life, we must have at least an ounce of the vision of Rabbi Akiva—to see that G‑d is found not only in the light, but in the darkness as well. Not only in the “yes,” but in the “no” just the same. Because there is nothing else but G‑d, and He is good.

As David sang, “Even darkness will not obscure anything from You, and the night is light like day; darkness and light are all the same.”6

Based on Likkutei Sichot, volume 6, Yitro #2.