Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva were two Talmudic sages who lived in Israel when the land was a part of the Roman empire. Both of them left this world around the year 135. Rabbi Ishmael was a Kohen Gadol, a High Priest, brought up in an illustrious household of saintly, righteous Kohanim. Rabbi Akiva was a descendent of converts and an illiterate shepherd until he was 40. At the age of 40, he set out on a path of return to the Torah, the path of teshuvah, and went on to become no less great a sage than Rabbi Ishmael, indeed, one of the greatest sages of all time.

Given the differences in their lives, it’s no wonder these two great sages had different perspectives on the Torah.

For example, this is how each one of them understood what happened at Mount Sinai when the Israelites received the Ten Commandments. (Mechilta to Exodus 20:1)

Rabbi Ishmael says that, to the positive commandments—like “Keep Shabbat,” “Honor your parents,” the Israelites answered “Yes”; and to the negative ones—like “Don’t steal,” “Don’t murder,” the Israelites said “No, we will not sin!”

Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, says that they answered “Yes” to both positive and negative commandments.

What’s the difference between these two perspectives?

To help us see it, let’s look at another, related difference.

At Sinai, when the Ten Commandments were given, the Torah says that “all the people saw the voices and the lightning” (Exodus 20:15). Kolot in Hebrew literally means “voices.” In juxtaposition with “lightning,” kolot might refer to “thunder,” poetically speaking. More literally, however, kolot refers to the polyvalent voice of G‑d.

Rabbi Ishmael says: “They saw what is seen and heard what is heard.” In other words, they saw the lightning, and they heard the thunderous voice of G‑d.

Rabbi Akiva says, no, actually, “they saw what is heard, and heard what is seen.” In other words, they saw the thunderous voice of G‑d, and they heard the lightning.

Each of these perspectives presents a problem. Rabbi Akiva’s perspective is obviously problematic because voices are not seen and lightning is not heard. But Rabbi Ishmael’s perspective is also problematic because he seems to be stating the obvious.

Let’s start with Rabbi Akiva. What does he mean?

As a rule, G‑d does not perform miracles unnecessarily. Which means that the miraculous inversion of the powers of hearing and sight, according to Rabbi Akiva, was a necessary feature of G‑d’s giving of the Ten Commandments. The spiritual state of the Israelites was so elevated by this great revelation that their senses took on miraculous powers. At a tremendous spiritual altitude, in a state of sublime religious ecstasy, “they saw the voice of G‑d, and they heard the lightning.”

The difference between seeing and hearing is significant here. Seeing is—believing. According to Halacha, “an eyewitness to an event cannot be a judge in a case about it” (Rosh Hashanah 26a; this is said in reference to cases punishable by execution)—because no counter-argument would be able sway the power of what he witnessed with his own eyes. A judge can only be impartial when he listens to two conflicting testimonies regarding an event that he himself did not see with his own eyes.

Seeing is believing because it’s more physical, in a sense. You see things. A pot. A pan. A broom. A hat. Hearing is more spiritual. You hear—not just sounds but—words, meanings, intentions, feelings, thoughts … about a pot, a pan, a broom, a hat.

So when Rabbi Akiva says that the Israelites at Sinai saw what is normally heard, this means that the spiritual became as tangible as the physical. When they were told in the First Commandment, “I am the Lord your G‑d” (Exodus 20:2), the very essence and reality of G‑d was made available to their power of sight. They saw G‑dliness.

By the same token, the reality of the world, which is normally corroborated by sight, faded away and became a matter of hearsay. Like a rumour. The reality of the world was dissolved in the superior reality of “I am the Lord your G‑d.” Like an icecube in warm water. In their state of religious ecstasy, the Israelites still knew that the world existed, not because it was obvious, but only because they were told, as a matter of heresay: “In the beginning, G‑d created heaven and earth.” (Genesis 1:1)

Now what about Rabbi Ishmael’s opinion? Does he prefer to see fewer miracles in the awesome revelation of the Ten Commandments?

For Rabbi Ishmael, to be sure, the revelation was no less miraculous. But the real miracle inhered in the fact that “the Lord came down upon Mt. Sinai” (Ex. 19:20). In other words, that the high came low; that the Infinite descended into the finite. The miracle was precisely that the world was not dissolved by the revelation, even though it should have been dissolved.

So who’s right: Rabbi Ishmael or Rabbi Akiva? What was the bigger miracle?

Remember: Rabbi Ishmael was a Kohen Gadol. A High Priest is someone who is utterly “sanctified to his G‑d.” (Leviticus 21:7) His service is that of the righteous and saintly: to transmit holiness to this world, to bring what is highest down to the lowest. So for him the greater miracle was the descent of the Divine down to the human.

And Rabbi Akiva was a man of return, a Ba’al Teshuvah. His spiritual labours were focused on ascending higher than this world. So for him the greater miracle was the ascent of the human up to the Divine, an ascent that requires a transcending of physical limitations: “they saw what is heard.”

But of course both miracles took place at Sinai as two miraculous aspects of one total miracle. And the question is simply one of which miracle should be focused on.

The difference between the two perspectives on the total miracle at Sinai is likewise found in two perspectives regarding what constitutes a commandment, a mitzvah.

On the one hand, each commandment has unique characteristics tailored to a specific human activity for the purpose of sanctifying a specific aspect of the world. The commandments are all different from each other.

On the other hand, each and every commandment is given by G‑d in the same way that every other commandment is G‑d-given. In this respect, the commandments are all the same.

Now just as each sage focuses on one of the two aspects of the total miracle, each one focuses on one of the two aspects of a commandment.

Rabbi Ishmael, who is concerned above all with bringing G‑dliness down into this world, has an eye for the details of the commandments, the special way each one sanctifies the world. So he says the Israelites were mindful to answer “Yes” to the positive ones, “Yes, we will do them”; and “No” to the negative ones, a “No” echoing G‑d’s “Do not,” horrified at the prospective damage of each potential sin, Heaven forfend.

The primary concern of Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, is to elevate the world with all its particulars to the unity of G‑d. For him the key element in all the commandments is their participation in the unified will of G‑d. So he says that the Israelites responded with a resounding “Yes” to positive and negative commandments alike. The “Yes” of Rabbi Akiva is altogether different from the “Yes” of Rabbi Ishmael: it is a “Yes” connecting the Yes-saying soul to G‑dliness itself.

Who’s right, then? Both, of course. Both are right, and the question, again, is nothing more than one of focus

For the Baal Teshuva, the individual who still feels the pull of the physical world, the focus must be on making his experience of G‑dliness as lucid and strong as his experience of witnessing something with his eyes. Sort of like seeing infinity, infinity itself, instead of lots of numbers.

For the one who has achieved this power of holy “sight,” the very same world that has been rendered a matter of hearsay by this powerful spiritual seeing, a world dissolved in G‑dliness, this same world must be seen a second time, seen with new eyes, eyes used to seeing G‑dliness. The world must be seen as the physical depths into which G‑dliness miraculously descends.

As if, after seeing beyond all numbers, seeing infinity, one could see the infinity, or an infinite number of infinities, inside the numbers.

In sum, the argument between Rabbi Ishamel and Rabbi Akiva offers us two perspectives, each of which depends on one’s state of spiritual positioning, as it were. So long as one feels the downward pull of the physical world, one’s spiritual efforts have to aim upwards, to a sublime experience of G‑d that’s like seeing with one’s own eyes. But once spiritual vision is attained, one then has to bring G‑d down to the material world where we live, down into the life of physical deeds, the mitzvot.

Adapted by Michael Chighel from Likkutei Sichot, Volume VI, pp. 119-129.