‘How You Gonna See Me Now?’ Parashat Va’etchanan 5779

Moses, in the last week of his life, makes one last-ditch effort to convince G-d to rescind His decree preventing Moses from entering the Land of Israel. In the first verses of Parashat Va’etchanan, Moses pleads to G-d [Devarim 3:23]: “Pray, let me cross over and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon”. G-d refuses to budge, telling Moses [Devarim 3:26-27] “It is enough for you; speak to Me no more regarding this matter. Go up to the top of [Mount Nevo] and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan [River]”. You will never be allowed to enter the Land. The best I can offer you is a glimpse from afar.

There is something strange going on here. Notice that Moses asks G-d to “cross over and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan”. Why doesn’t Moses just ask G-d to let him cross over the Jordan? What does the word “see” add? Worse, Moses seems to be scoring an own-goal because G-d answers him in kind: “If you want to see the land, then you can see it from this side of the Jordan River”. Now that you mention it, G-d doesn’t talk about “seeing the land”, He talks about “seeing the land with your eyes”. Well, how else is Moses meant to see the land if not with his eyes? This question is fortified by the fact that Moses is commanded to use his eyes twice in the very same verse: G-d first tells Moses to “lift up your eyes” and then “see with your eyes”. What is the Torah trying to tell us[1]?

We can get some traction by turning to a verse in the beginning of Parashat Shemot, a verse that describes a young Moses who has grown up as the adopted son of the Princess of Egypt, a man detached from the pain and darkness that has defined the Jewish People. Moses leaves the palace to get a first-hand glimpse of the slavery [Shemot 2:11]: “It came to pass in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and saw their burdens”. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary translates the word “to see” as “to perceive with the eye”. This is not what Moses was doing. Rashi, the ultimate medieval commentator, explains that “[Moses] directed his eyes and his heart to be distressed over them”. The Torah uses the word “see” in this verse in the same way a person today would say “I see what you’re saying”[2], meaning “I understand what you are saying”. Moses did not merely watch his fellow Jews being beaten by their Egyptian taskmasters, he understood what was going on. He understood that as Pharaoh’s adopted grandson, he was in a unique position to put an end to the slavery. Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik, writing in “Adam v’Olamo”, takes Rashi one step further. He explains that Moses wanted to experience the difficulty of their slavery. He wanted to show solidarity: “It is insufficient for [a] sense of identification to be solely in the intellectual realm. Solidarity must include identifying with the nation’s pain and suffering as well as the rejoicing and good times.” And so when Moses sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Jew, he cannot restrain himself and he kills him.

Before we continue, we need a little bit of background science. A human being has two primary senses with which to absorb information: through sight and through sound[3]. Which of the two senses contains the most information? Mathematically speaking, sound is numerically represented by the instantaneous amplitude of a sound as a function of time. If you have a machine that measures how loud a sound is, you just write down the loudness at some predefined interval, say, a hundred times a second. Eventually, you end up with a long list, or “vector”, of numbers. If you compress the vector using the right software, you end up with an MP3 file that you can play on your mobile phone. But at the end of the day, a sound is just a vector of numbers. Sound is a “one-dimensional” signal. Sight works differently. Roughly speaking, the eye breaks down a picture into individual dots known as “pixels”[4]. Each instantaneous picture contains millions of pixels arranged in a “matrix” of rows and columns. Each pixel has a colour. In order to represent a picture, you need to go through every column and every row and to write down the colour of each pixel. If you compress the data using the right software, you end up with a JPG file that you can look at on your mobile phone. But at the end of the day, an image is just a matrix of numbers. Sight is a “two-dimensional” signal and so sight provides more information than sound.

Actually, sight is more than two-dimensional. Sight can be used to build a three-dimensional model. Imagine some three-dimensional object like a house, a goat, or a cruise missile. The object’s structure can be reconstructed by fusing multiple pictures of the object taken from different angles. At minimum, six pictures are sufficient[5]. If the object has a more complex structure, more pictures are required. Sometimes, a particular detail can be captured properly only if it is viewed from just the right angle. But if I take enough pictures from all the right angles and if I have the right software, eventually I will have enough data to put together a three-dimensional model of the object.

Let’s return to Moses “seeing” the burdens of his enslaved Jewish brothers. Looking at the [1] simple understanding of the word, [2] Rashi’s explanation and [3] Rabbi Soloveichik’s explanation, we can form a progression starting from “sight” to “understanding” to “solidarity”. Each explanation adds another layer and dimension to the word. Borrowing terminology from our discourse on sight and sound, we could say that the simple understanding is one-dimensional, Rashi’s explanation is two-dimensional, and Rabbi Soloveichik’s explanation is three-dimensional.

Now we have sufficient background to return to Moses’ request and to G-d’s response. Moses has but one goal: he wants to live in the Land of Israel. When he tells G-d that he wants to “see” the land, he is using the maximal – Soloveichikean – definition of the word. He wants solidarity. He wants to work together with the Jewish People in building their own homeland a place that was predestined for this purpose from the moment of creation. He wants to experience Israel in a three-dimensional way. G-d does not grant Moses his wish. Instead, He offers Moses a compromise. He allows Moses to see the Land of Israel only “with his own eyes”, with his own limited vantage point. His view will be only two-dimensional. He will not merit the solidarity he so desires but he will merit a deeper understanding of the meaning and the essence of a Jewish homeland.

In a recent Tikvah Fund podcast[6], Rabbi Daniel Gordis compares the experience of Jews living in Israel with those living in the Diaspora. Rabbi Gordis asserts that Israelis experience what he called “three-dimensional Judaism” while Diasporans are limited to “two-dimensional Judaism”. Israelis live in a place where Judaism is built-in, where, like it or not,  one sees, understands, an experiences Judaism in every facet of their lives, where the holidays are Jewish holidays, where one doesn’t have to apologize for leaving work early on winter Fridays, where the highways are empty on Yom Kippur, and where ninety nine percent of the food in the supermarket is Kosher.

You can see Israel, but you’ll never really see Israel until you’ve seen Israel.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Meir Shimon ben Shirka.

[1] Rabbi Chaim ben Atar, the “Or HaChaim HaKadosh”, who lived in Morocco in the first half of the eighteenth century, asks this question. He takes a completely different direction than the one we will take.

[2] People also say “I hear you”, meaning “I understand what you are saying”. Psychologists believe that people can be divided into two categories: those who use sight-based metaphors and those who use sound-based metaphors. A similar phenomenon can be seen in the Talmud. Before the Babylonian Talmud answers a question, it often says “Ta sh’ma” – “Come and hear”. The Jerusalem Talmud, on the other hand, begins its explanations with the words “Ta Hami” or “Ta Hazi” – “Come and see”.

[3] The senses of taste, smell, and touch, do not impart nearly as much useful information as sight and sound.

[4] The resolution of the human eye is about 576 megapixels, about 50 times more than my iPhone.

[5] Above, below, right, left, forward, aft.

[6] (https://tikvahfund.org/library/podcast-daniel-gordis-on-the-rift-between-american-and-israeli-jews/)

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, 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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