In this elaborate and profound Sicha, two disagreements in interpretation of events connected with the Giving of the Torah are explored. In both cases the disputants are Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael; and their opinions reveal a deep underlying difference in their orientation towards the service of G‑d. The two problems they confront are, what did the Israelites answer to G‑d when they accepted the Ten Commandments, and, when the Torah tells us that they “saw the voices (of the thunder),” did they literally see a sound, or did they only hear it? From these apparently slight beginnings, the Rebbe uncovers fundamental themes; in particular, the difference in perception between the righteous man and the man of repentance.

1. The Answers of the Israelites

As a preliminary to the giving of the Ten Commandments the Torah tells us that “And G‑d spoke all these things, saying.’’1

The usual meaning of the Hebrew word of “saying” is “to say to others.”2 For example, the meaning of “And G‑d spoke to Moses, saying…” is that Moses should transmit the word of G‑d to the Children of Israel. But this cannot be the meaning of the present verse, for at the time of the Giving of the Torah, G‑d Himself spoke to all the Israelites. Nor can it mean “for transmission to the later generations,” for we have a tradition that all Jewish souls, of past and future lives, were gathered at Sinai to witness the revelation.3

Therefore the Mechilta interprets “saying” as meaning that, for every commandment, the children of Israel answered G‑d saying that they would do what it demanded to them.

But the Mechilta cites two opinions as to the manner in which the Israelites answered. Rabbi Ishmael says that on the positive commandments they answered “yes” and on the negative, “no” (i.e., that they would do what G‑d commanded, and would not do what He forbade). Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, says that they answered “yes” to both positive and negative commands (i.e., that they would do G‑d’s will, whatever form it took). But what is the substance of the disagreement between the two opinions? Surely, they both, in essence, say the same thing?

2. The Voice of the Thunder

There is another disagreement between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael concerning the Giving of the Torah. We are told that “all the people saw the voices (of the thunder) and the lightning”4—a problem, for how can voices be seen?

Rabbi Ishmael says: “They saw what is (normally) seen and heard what is (normally) heard,” taking the verb “saw” to apply not to the voices of the thunder, but to the lightning. But Rabbi Akiva says, “they saw what is (normally) heard, and heard what is (normally) seen” i.e., that they did indeed see the voices, and did not see, but heard, the lightning.

Now there is a general principle that G‑d does not perform miracles for no reason. From which we can infer that the miracles that Rabbi Akiva describes were not extraneous to the giving of the Torah, but were an essential part of it. So elevated were the Israelites by the revelation of the Ten Commandments that their senses took on miraculous powers. If so, we must understand the verse “they saw the voices (of the thunder) and the lightning” as relating to the ecstatic state of the Israelites. But now we cannot understand Rabbi Ishmael’s opinion, for he interprets the verse as relating to a purely natural phenomenon.

3. Rashi’s Quotations

Since these two disagreements relate to the same subject and are between the same protagonists, we can assume that their opinions on the answer of the Israelites are connected to their opinions on the seeing of the thunder (that one entails the other).

This would appear to be contradicted by the fact that Rashi, on the word “saying,” quotes Rabbi Ishmael’s opinion (the Israelites answered “yes” to the positive commands and “no” to the negative); while on the phrase “they saw the voices” he cites (part of) Rabbi Akiva’s explanation (that they saw what is normally heard).

Since Rashi’s commentary is consistent, it would seem that the two problems are not related if he can cite one side on one question, and the other on the other. This however does not follow. For Rashi quotes only half of Rabbi Akiva’s explanation, omitting “the Israelites heard what is normally seen.” And it is this second half which forces Rabbi Akiva to his opinion that the Israelites answered “yes” to the negative command (i.e., his difference of opinion with Rabbi Ishmael). And the reason why Rashi selects Rabbi Ishmael’s answer to one question and one half of Rabbi Akiva’s to the other, is because these are the most appropriate to a literal understanding of the text (which is Rashi’s concern). How this is so, will be explained later.

4. Sight and Sound

As a preliminary, we must understand the difference between “seeing” and “hearing.”

Firstly the impression made on a man by seeing something happen is far stronger than that made by just hearing about it. So much so that “an eyewitness to an event cannot be a judge in a case about it”5—for no counter-argument could sway his fixed belief about what he saw. Whereas so long as he has only heard about it, he can be open to conflicting testimonies, and judge impartially between them.

Secondly, only a physical thing can be seen; while what can be heard is always less tangible (sounds, words, opinions).

These two points are connected. For man is a physical being, and it is natural that the physical should make the most indelible impression on him; while the spiritual is accessible only by “hearing” and understanding, hence its impression is weaker.

This explains the nature of the elevation that the Giving of the Torah worked on the Israelites. They saw what was normally heard—i.e., the spiritual became as tangible and certain as the familiar world of physical objects. Indeed, the Essence of G‑d was revealed to their eyes, when they heard the words, “I (the Essence) the L-rd (who transcends the world) am thy G‑d (who is immanent in the world).”

At a time of such revelations, the world is known for what it truly is—not an independently existent thing, but something entirely nullified before G‑d. If so, how do we know that there is a world and not simply an illusion of one? Only by inference, from the verse “In the beginning, G‑d created heaven and earth.” In other words, the Israelites “heard what was normally seen”—they had only an intellectual conviction (and not the testimony of the senses) that there was a physical world.

5. Rabbi Ishmael’s Interpretation

But if this was so, what elevation was there in the Israelites according to Rabbi Ishmael, who holds that they only heard and saw what was normally heard and seen? How could this be, when the revelation was the greatest in all history?

The explanation is that the main revelation at the Giving of the Torah was that “the L-rd came down upon Mt. Sinai”6—the high came low; and the miracle was that G‑d Himself should be revealed within the limits of nature. This is why it was so extraordinary that the Israelites should, without any change in their senses, perceive G‑d in His Essence and so abdicate themselves that “they trembled and stood far off.”7

6. The Priest and the Repentant

Why do Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva hold opposing views as to the nature of the elevation brought about in the Israelites at Sinai?

Rabbi Ishmael was a High Priest (a Kohen Gadol)8 and the nature of a priest is to be “sanctified to his G‑d.”9 His service is that of the righteous, to transmit holiness to this world (to take the high and bring it low). This is why he saw the greatest miracle as being that G‑d Himself came down to this world, so far as to be perceived by the normal senses (“they saw what is normally seen”).

But Rabbi Akiva was a man of repentance (a Ba’al Teshuvah), whose descent was from converts10 and who only started to learn Torah at the age of 40.11 Repentance colors his whole manner of service: The desire to ascend higher than this world (and, as is known,12 he longed throughout his life to be able to martyr himself in the cause of G‑d). So that for him the greatest miracle was the transcending of all physical limitations (“they saw what is normally heard”).

7. Two Faces of Commandment

There are two aspects to every commandment:

(i) the element which is common to them all—that they are commands from G‑d; and

(ii) the characteristics which are individual to each, each involving different human activities and sanctifying a different aspect of the world.

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael each attend to a different aspect. Rabbi Ishmael, who sees the ultimate achievement in translating G‑dliness into this world, with all its limitations, sees principally the details of the commandments, (how each sanctifies a different part of this world). And thus he holds that the Israelites answered “yes” to the positive ones and “no” to the negative—that they attended to what distinguished one kind of command from another.

But to Rabbi Akiva, what was important was the transcending of the world and its limitations, and hence in a commandment the essential element was what was common to each, that it embodies the will of G‑d which has no limitations. Therefore he says that the Israelites responded primarily to this common element, they said “yes” to positive and negative alike.

8.The Positive in the Negative:
The Character of Rabbi Akiva

We can in fact go deeper in our understanding of Rabbi Akiva’s statement. When he says that the Israelites said “yes” to the negative commandments, this was not simply that they sensed in them the element common to all expressions of G‑d’s will; but more strongly, that they only saw what was positive even in a negative thing—the holiness that an act of restraint brings about.

And this follows from the second clause of his second explanation (which Rashi omits in his commentary) that the Israelites “heard what was normally seen.” For since the physical world’s existence was for them only an intellectual perception and the only sensed reality was the existence of G‑d, they could not sense the existence of things which opposed holiness (“the other gods”) but saw only the act of affirmation involved in “thou shall have no other gods.”

We can see this orientation of Rabbi Akiva very clearly in the story related in the Talmud,13 that Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Akiva were on a journey and decided to return to Jerusalem (after the destruction of the second Temple). When they reached Mt. Scopus they rent their garments. When they reached the Temple Mount, they saw a fox emerging from the Holy of Holies and they began to weep—but Rabbi Akiva laughed. They asked him, “Why are you laughing?” and he replied, “Why are you weeping?” They said, it is written, “the common man who goes near (to the Holy of Holies) shall die,’’14 and now foxes enter it—should we not cry?

He said, “this is why I laugh. For it is written ‘And I will take to Me faithful witnesses, Uriah the priest and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah.’15 Now what connection has Uriah with Zechariah? Uriah lived during the times of the First Temple, while Zechariah prophesied at the time of the second. But the Torah links the prophecies of both men. Uriah wrote, ‘therefore shall Zion, because of you, be plowed like a field.’ And Zechariah wrote ‘Yet shall old men and women sit in the broad places of Jerusalem.’ So long as Uriah’s prophecy had not been fulfilled, I was afraid that Zechariah’s would not be. Now that it has, it is certain that Zechariah’s will come true.”

Even in the darkest moment of Jewish history—when foxes ran freely in the Holy of Holies Rabbi Akiva saw only the good: That this was proof that the serene and hopeful vision of Zechariah would be vindicated.

9. The Meaning of Rashi

The two kinds of service which Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael exemplify (the service of the righteous and the repentant) are relevant only to one who is already some way along the path to perfection. But to the “five-year old”16 (whether in years, or more generally to those at the beginning of the way) to whom Rashi addresses his commentary, he need only quote part of Rabbi Akiva’s explanation, that “they saw what is normally heard.” For the beginning of worship, stated in the first chapter of the Shulchan Aruch, is “I have set the L-rd before me continually.” In other words, it is to strive to make G‑dliness (normally only an intellectual notion, something “heard”) as real for oneself as if one had literally seen Him with one’s own eyes.

But Rashi does not quote the rest of the sentence, “they heard what was normally seen,” for however real G‑d may become for one; at the beginning of one’s life of service, the world still seems like a tangible reality. And physical acts like eating and drinking are still prompted by physical desires, and are not unequivocally for the sake of Heaven.

And thus, since the physical world still has an independent reality for him, and he can still perceive the bad, Rashi gives Rabbi Ishmael’s comment, that the Israelites answered “no” to the negative commandments.

Indeed, though Rashi cites Rabbi Akiva, that the Israelites “saw what was normally heard,” this is consistent even with the opinion of Rabbi Ishmael. For his comment speaks to a man already at the level of righteousness when he can perceive G‑dliness even within the constraints of the lowest of this world, symbolized by the expression that he “hears what is normally heard” (i.e., where G‑dliness is so concealed that it is only affirmed as a result of intellectual proofs). But at the beginning of the path, one must relate to G‑d only at a level, when he “sees what is normally heard” (i.e., where G‑dliness is readily perceived).

The implication of Rashi for the conduct of the individual Jew, is that when the world still exercises its pull on him, he must strive to make his sense of the presence of G‑d as clear as his sense of sight. But this is only a preliminary stage, from which he must take one of the two paths to perfection—Rabbi Ishmael’s way of righteousness (bringing G‑d into the lowest levels of this world) or Rabbi Akiva’s way of repentance (bringing the world up to the highest level of perceiving G‑d, so that this world is seen only as an expression of G‑dliness). And since both are paths of Torah—both of them are true; therefore, one must combine aspects of both in his spiritual life.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. VI pp. 119-129)