‘Between Sight and Sound’ Parashat Yitro 5779

The Revelation at Sinai, through which the Jewish people received the Torah, was literally a mind-blowing experience. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [88a] teaches that with each utterance that issued forth from the Mouth of G‑d, the souls of the Jewish People flew from their bodies and G‑d had to bring back down the dew with which He will resurrect the dead and revive them. The Torah vividly describes the experience [Shemot 20:15]: “All the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain.” Rashi, the famous medieval commentator, comments, “They saw what was audible, which is impossible to see elsewhere”. They saw what was audible? How can a person see sounds?

There is actually a medical explanation for this type of phenomenon. Some people experience a phenomenon called “Synaesthesia”. According to “Psychology Today”, “Synaesthesia is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. Simply put, when one sense is activated, another unrelated sense is activated at the same time. This may, for instance, take the form of hearing music and simultaneously sensing the sound as swirls or patterns of colour.” One could postulate that three million Jewish People simultaneously experienced synaesthesia there at the foot of Mount Sinai. Nevertheless, given that synaesthesia is typically a chronic condition, the idea of a one-time mass episode seems a bit forced.

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter from Gur, writing in his monumental “Sfat Emet”, offers a conceptual approach. The Sfat Emet differentiates between sight and sound. When a person sees an object, he perceives the object precisely as it is, without any kind of transformation. The picture that registers in a person’s mind is a perfect copy of the actual object. On the other hand, when a person hears a sound, the sound that registers in a person’s mind is not identical to the original sound. It has been filtered by the sensors in the ear[1]. In other words, seeing is objective while hearing is subjective. However, seeing is not necessarily a better way of transmitting data. In some ways, hearing is better. The Sefat Emet posits that seeing is, in his words, “external”. The human eye senses light waves that have bounced off the object under observation. Hearing is “internal”. The sound waves emitted by an object physically enter the ear. Rav Itamar Eldar suggests that the advantages and disadvantages of hearing and seeing stem from the same point: “Leaving an object on the outside without attempting to assimilate it on the inside allows it to remain objective.  Its objectivity is not diminished by the imposition of a subjective perspective.  The objectivity is pure and eternal, but it is also external, and therefore not relevant to the observer on the existential level.  This is the case of seeing. On the other hand, the attempt to turn something, an image or an idea, into a part of me, requires its assimilation that comes at the cost of dressing it in my subjectivity…  It casts off its absolute standards that are unaffected by any factor, in its readiness to become a part of me, affected by me, and it may be added, limited by my limitations.” The Sefat Emet asserts that se “seeing the sounds” means that the Torah was given at Sinai in a way that took the best characteristics from sight and from sound. Like sight, the Torah was transmitted in a perfect fashion and like sound, the Torah was completely internalized by each and every person.

I would like to propose a novel way of understanding the concept of “seeing sounds” that, while conceptual, is firmly rooted in science. The core concept of the hypothesis comes from the preface to the commentary of the Torah of Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman – the Ramban (Nachmanides) – a Torah scholar, Kabbalist, philosopher and doctor who lived in twelfth century Girona, Spain. The Ramban teaches that the Torah is more than just a collection of holy words. It is more than ink written on parchment. The Talmud in Tractate Shekalim [16b] teaches that the Torah that was given to Moses at Sinai as “black fire on white fire”. The Ramban explains this concept as follows: The Torah is the projection of the Will of G-d in our corporeal world. In the confines of a Torah scroll, G-d’s Will is captured in words. The Torah is actually one long vector of letters, what the Ramban calls “the Names of G-d”, and the parsing of the words in our Torah scrolls is only one way of reading those letters. He brings an example: The first verse in our Torah scrolls reads בראשית ברא – “In the beginning [G-d] created”. These two words can be parsed in a different way: בראש יתברא. The English translation of these words would be similar, and yet different, from the original. The letters of the Torah can be parsed in an enormous number[2] of ways. Each of these permutations reveals another aspect of G-d’s Will.

What does sound look like? Sound travels through the air in waves. It is a “one-dimensional” signal, meaning that it is defined by its instantaneous amplitude at each point on the wave[3]. A picture, on the other hand, exists in two dimensions. A picture on a computer or TV screen is comprised of a matrix of pixels[4]. Each pixel has three values: one for red, one for green, and one for blue (RGB). The aggregate of the RGB defines a colour. When all the pixels appear in their designated colours, an image results. Let’s add yet another dimension. In recent years, the price of 3D printers has fallen such that today it is possible to order a quality printer on Amazon for about $500. How do 3D printers work? They build up a three-dimensional model of an object layer by layer. In each layer, some material, typically plastic, is melted and deposited at the proper locations. Each layer is essentially an image in which plastic is deposited at some pixels and not at others. When all the images are stacked one on top of the other and fused together, a three-dimensional object results. For instance, a printer prints a model of an F-16 fighter-bomber by beginning at the tail, working its way forward through the stabilizers, the wings and the cockpit until it finishes at the nose.

What does a music file on a computer look like? It consists of a long line of ones and zeros. Most of the ones and zeros are “data” that define the amplitude of the sound wave at any given time, while the rest are used as indicators so that iTunes can turn the ones and zeros into music. What does an image file look like? It, too, is a long line of ones and zeros. As in music files, most of the ones and zeros are “data” that define the RGB value of each individual pixel, while the rest are used as indicators so that Flickr can turn the ones and zeros into an image. Similarly, CAD files used by printers to create three-dimensional object consist of ones and zeros. Most of the ones and zeros are “data” that define which pixels get plastic deposits, while the rest are used as indicators so that your printer can turn the ones and zeros into an F-16. Now here’s the thing: the ones and zeros in a music file are exactly the same ones and zeros in an image file. What happens if we take a music file, say Stairway to Heaven.mp3, and format it so it could be loaded into imaging software? The result would be an image. Chances are it would be a random assortment of coloured pixels. Some might call it “Modern Art”. Now what happens if we load the very same music file into a 3D printer? The printer will produce a block of plastic perforated with random holes. With the proper explanation, that block of plastic could find its way into MoMA[5].

As the perfect Will of G-d, the Torah is simultaneously meaningful in every dimension: sound, sight, touch, and in dimensions that we cannot comprehend. Its sound is a Beethoven symphony, its image is the Mona Lisa, and its sculpture is Donatello’s David. When the people at Sinai “heard the sounds”, they miraculously understood the Torah in every possible way that it can be understood. This revelation made an indelible stamp on their souls, a stamp that we, their descendants, carry deep in ours.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Tinok haRach ben Chaya Sarah and Tzvi ben Shoshana.

[1] While the explanation of the Sefat Emet is not necessarily biologically correct, the point he is trying to make is not any less valid or relevant. He uses biology only as a metaphor to assist in comprehension.

[2] The Torah contains more than 300,000 letters. Do the math.

[3] Sound is also determined by the sampling frequency, but for our purposes, this is irrelevant.

[4] As an example, a picture in full HD is made up of 1920 x 1080 pixels.

[5] “Stairway to Heaven in Extruded Plastic” I’d pay to see it.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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