Seeing Voices

In 1989 Oliver Sacks published Seeing Voices, a book that examines the world of deaf culture, and the neurological and social underpinnings of the remarkable visual language of the congenitally deaf. Sacks argues how language provides access to human culture, it is in fact the unique and perhaps spiritual aspect of the human condition. With his penetrating analysis, Sacks, passionately argues how important it is for every child to be exposed to some form of language at as early an age as possible, and for the congenitally deaf that means sign language for; “ to be defective in language, for a human being, is one of the most desperate of calamities, for it is only through language that we enter fully into our human estate and culture, communicate freely with our fellows, acquire and share information.”

I wonder whether the title of his book was influenced by its use in this week’s portion of Yitro describing the momentous events surrounding the Receiving of the Torah. Ch 20:15
וְכָל־הָעָם֩ רֹאִ֨ים אֶת־הַקּוֹלֹ֜ת וְאֶת־הַלַּפִּידִ֗ם וְאֵת֙ ק֣וֹל הַשֹּׁפָ֔ר…
And all the people saw the voices and the torches, and the sound of the shofar…

Understandably the commentators have offered a plethora of explanations as to how we might understand this astonishing phenomena. Rashi speaks to the capacity to actually see that which is audible, he also quotes from the Mechilta that suggests that through these extraordinary capacities we learn that there was no one who suffered blindness , as they were able to see the voices, and no one was deaf as everyone earlier had spoken the iconic נעשה ונשמע we will do, and we will hear. Are we to understand this miraculous occurrence as the lack of disability or perhaps the in the spirit of Oliver Sacks the capacity to overcome, even compensate for disability?

If as Rashi suggests the voices seen were those of God, why is it not described as THE voice, a Kol, as in the very same verse where the singular sound, Kol, of the Shofar is depicted?

From the outset it appears that we are invited to understand, hear and see the multiplicity of voices, perspectives and interpretations of the Torah. Equally importantly there appears to be a recognition that the people will hear and see the voice and potentially interpret it differently, hence the overt reference to the voices not necessarily describing that which was said rather that which was heard. Emmanuel Levinas speaks of the significance of the fact that the Torah was given not as a document but through the spoken word(s) of God, the Oral Law as the medium that actually invites by design the individual hearing and seeing. That perhaps is the very essence of the Torah, the rest is commentary, go and learn.

About the Author
Shalom Orzach is a senior educator and consultant for the iCenter and serves on faculty for the Foundation for Jewish Camp. He was a scholar on the prestigious Jerusalem Fellows Program, following which he was the Executive Director for Jewish Renewal at the UJIA in England. Shalom is an acclaimed public speaker on contemporary Israel who brings extensive knowledge, humor and passion.
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