Two Approaches to the Giving of the Torah

The Torah introduces the Ten Commandments with the verse,1 “And G‑d spoke all these words, saying....” Our Sages2 explain the word leimor (“saying”) as indicating that the Jews responded to G‑d after each commandment.3 As to the actual response, there is a difference of opinion among our Sages: Rabbi Yishmael states that they answered “Yes” to the positive commandments and “No” to the negative ones; Rabbi Akiva maintains that they answered “Yes” to all the commandments, signifying their willingness to fulfill G‑d’s will in every detail.

This divergence can be understood by analyzing another difference of opinion between these two Sages regarding a second verse4 which describes the revelation at Sinai: “All the people saw the sounds and the flames.” Rabbi Yishmael5 maintains that the people “saw what is usually seen, and heard what is usually heard.” In his reading, the verb “saw” does not apply to the object “sounds” which follows it im­mediately, but only to “flames” which is the second object of the verb in the verse.

Rabbi Akiva, however, maintains that the verb’s direct object is also its semantic object. In his reading, the Giving of the Torah brought about an upheaval within the natural or­der; the people “heard what is usually seen and saw what is usually heard.” They saw the sounds and heard the flames.

The Contrast Between Our Senses

What is the difference between seeing and hearing? Wit­nessing an event makes such a powerful impression on a per­son that he cannot be persuaded that it has not taken place. For this reason our Sages maintain that a person who has seen an event cannot objectively consider a defendant’s rights; hence the rule6 that “a witness cannot serve as a judge.” Sound, by contrast, does not make as powerful an impression: a person who hears an idea is still capable of imagining a conflicting position.

Another difference between the two: Vision is a very con­crete faculty, applying only to physical objects. Hearing is less tightly associated with a physical signal. The sense of hearing thus enables us to connect with abstract, even spiritual, concepts.

These two differences are interrelated. Because man is a physical being, physical things make a deep impression upon him and are therefore perceived through the more concrete sense of sight. Intellectual and spiritual constructs, being further removed from a man, are perceived by hearing, a faculty which makes a less powerful impression, but is capa­ble of relating to abstracts.

The Purpose of the Giving of the Torah

In light of this, we can understand Rabbi Akiva’s state­ment that at the Giving of the Torah, the Jews “heard what is usually seen and saw what is usually heard.” In his view, the purpose of the Torah is to transform a person’s frame of reference, to draw him away from involvement in worldly mat­ters and connect him to the spiritual. In his reading of the verse, this is what the Jews actually experienced at Sinai. Their senses were reoriented and they “saw” the spiritual and “heard” the material.

This meant that what made a deep and lasting impression upon them, was the spiritual, that which is usually “heard”. At that time, they related only abstractly to material things, merely “hearing” that which is ordinarily “seen”.

Rabbi Yishmael conceives of the Torah differently, seeing as its goal that G‑dliness permeate nature. In his view, the Torah is not intended to make man rise above the framework of worldly experience, but to make that experience, intact within its own worldly frame of reference, reflect G‑dliness. Therefore, he maintains, the Jews “saw what is usually seen and heard what is usually heard.” This was not, however, an ordinary form of seeing and hearing. At Sinai, the Jews were able to see and hear G‑dliness permeating the natural order.

Differences in Approach

These two perspectives flow from basic differences be­tween the two Sages. Rabbi Yishmael was a Kohen; accord­ing to some views, even a High Priest.7 Because his world was one of holiness, he perceived his challenge in the service of G‑d to be the extending of the borders of holiness, drawing G‑dliness into the framework of worldly existence.

Rabbi Akiva, by contrast, stemmed from a family of con­verts8and did not himself begin studying Torah until he was forty.9 His approach to divine service reflected the reality of the baal teshuvah, who rises above himself and his previous experiences and turns to G‑d.

Perceiving the Inner Truth

Rabbi Akiva’s drive to transcend his immediate circum­stances may be seen in the following narrative.10

Some time after the Second Destruction, he and four other Sages were making their way up to Jerusalem. As they cleared the summit of Mt. Scopus, the desolate sight of the Holy City met their eyes, and they rent their garments. Ap­proaching the Temple Mount they saw a fox prowling through the ruins of the Holy of Holies. Four scholars wept; Rabbi Akiva alone radiated joy.

The Sages asked him, “Why are you joyful?” Whereupon he asked them, “And why do you weep?”

They answered: “In the very sanctuary which was permit­ted to the High Priest alone, foxes now roam — then shall we not weep?”

Replied Rabbi Akiva: “And for that very reason I laugh.... In the Book of Michah it is written,11 ‘Therefore shall Zion for your sake be plowed like a field.’ In the Book of Zechariah it is written,12 ‘Old men and old women shall yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem.’ Until the first prophecy was fulfilled, I may have doubted the truth of the second. Now that the first prophecy has indeed been fulfilled, we may depend without a doubt that the second will also come true!”

Rabbi Akiva was able to look beyond the immediate situation and to perceive the inner G‑dly truth at its core. This was characteristic of the manner in which he sought to rise above the limits of his worldly experience.

Yes and No, and an All-Encompassing Yes

In light of this, we can explain the difference between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva regarding the response of the Jewish people to each of the Ten Commandments.13 The observance of mitzvos involves two elements: First, the undif­ferentiated desire to fulfill G‑d’s will, and second, the expres­sion of this desire in terms of a particular mitzvah.14

Rabbi Yishmael maintains that in answering “Yes” to the positive commandments and “No” to the negative com­mandments, the Jewish people were demonstrating their de­sire to fulfill G‑d’s will in terms relating to the definition of those particular mitzvos. Since, in his view, the goal of the Torah is to permeate the world with G‑dliness, Rabbi Yish­mael understood the Jewish people’s service of G‑d as reflect­ing the way in which mitzvos are expressed within the natural order.

Because Rabbi Akiva sees the observance of the mitzvos as an expression of an all-encompassing commitment to observe G‑d’s will, he focuses on the greater purpose common to all mitzvos and not on the particular details of the individual mitzvos.15 For this reason, he sees the Jewish people’s answer as expressing an undifferentiated commitment. By saying “Yes” to both the positive and negative commandments, they demonstrated an unbounded commitment to fulfill G‑d’s will.16

The Era of the Redemption: A Synthesis of Both Approaches

The ultimate goal of our divine service is a combination of these two approaches, for each has its distinctive merits. This synthesis will reach its apex in the Era of the Redemp­tion, when “Mashiach will motivate the righteous to turn to G‑d in teshuvah.”17 The divine service of “the righteous,” which is directed towards drawing down G‑dliness within the context of the natural order, will be permeated by the all-en­compassing commitment evoked by teshuvah.

Since we are living in the time immediately before the coming of Mashiach, we can appreciate a foretaste of this synthesis in our time. Through these efforts, we will hasten the coming of the time when we will achieve the ultimate ex­pression of both these approaches, with the coming of Mashiach. May this take place in the immediate future.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. VI, Parshas Yisro, p. 119 ff.