‘The Voice’ Parashat Vayikra 5780

Craig’s house was cool. Craig played the drums, and his parents, in an attempt to maintain their sanity, built him a sound-proof room in the basement, where he could play the drums to his heart’s content. I loved that room. You would speak and your voice would sound like cement. There was absolutely no echo. I played in a band together with Craig but we never jammed at his house, probably because we would have sounded like cement.

Parashat Vayikra introduces us to the world’s first sound-proof room. The Book of Vayikra begins with G-d addressing Moses [Vayikra 1:1]: “G-d called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying:” Rashi, the most famous of the medieval commentators, who lived in the eleventh century in Troyes, France, makes two interesting comments: [1] “[The fact that G-d spoke to Moses and only to Moses] implies that [G-d’s] Voice went on and reached [Moses’s] ears only but all the other Israelites did not hear it”, and [2] “[The fact that the conversation was limited to the Tent of Meeting] implies that the Voice went on and reached [Moses’s] ears only but all the other Israelites did not hear it.”[1] Lest one suggest that the reason that Moses alone heard G-d’s calling was because G-d spoke in a low voice, Rashi assures us that G-d spoke to Moses in a voice that King David describes as [Psalms 29:4-5] “The Voice of G-d is powerful; the Voice of G-d is full of majesty. The Voice of G-d breaks the cedars.” In order for sound to break glass, the volume must be greater than 100 decibels, about as loud as it sounds when standing next to a power mower. To break cedars, the sound of the Voice of G-d would have to be significantly louder, even if the cedars were standing right next to the source of the sound. And yet, a person standing immediately outside of Moses’s tent could hear nothing. Moses must have lived in a sound-proof tent.

What was the scientific mechanism that prevented the sound of G-d’s voice from exiting the Tent of Meeting? Before we address this question, we must remember that the Torah is not a book of physics, it is a book of metaphysics[2]. The Torah does not teach science, it teaches a person how to live his life according to G-d’s Will. The question we are asking is: Can we use scientific principles of noise suppression to help us understand G-d’s Will?

Before continuing, we need to understand a little bit about the science of sound. Sound is a type of energy created by vibration – of a guitar string, of a power mower, or, in Craig’s case, of the head of a drum. Sound travels in waves. It travels through most kinds of media: air, solids, and even water. Sound energy is naturally dissipated as it travels away from the source of the sound. As the distance from the source is doubled, the sound energy is reduced by a factor of four, or by 6 decibels.

The most prevalent way of suppressing sound is by using a sound-absorbent material, which absorbs the sound energy and converts it into heat. This is how Craig’s parents made his sound-proof room. Sound-proofing can be enhanced by covering the walls with foam baffles that reflect the sound waves away from the wall while absorbing the residual energy. An even more sophisticated way of suppressing sound is via “Active Noise Cancellation (ANC)”. ANC is what lies at the heart of such cutting-edge headphones as the Sony WH-1000XM3 or the Bose 700[3]. ANC takes advantage of the fact that sound travels in waves. Imagine throwing a rock into a still lake. Circular waves of water slowly emanate from the spot where the rock splashes down. Now imagine throwing two rocks into the lake. Both of the rocks create emanating waves. Each wave has peaks and troughs. In certain places, peaks of the waves from the two rocks arrive at the same point simultaneously and they combine into one larger peak or a larger trough. This is called “constructive interference”. In other places, the peak of one wave combines with the trough of another wave to cancel each other out. This is called “destructive interference”. ANC works by reconstructing the sound wave it is trying to cancel and by playing it back so that the troughs of the reconstructed sound combine with the peaks of the original sound and the two sound waves cancel each other out. The reconstructed sound is said to have undergone a “phase shift” making it is “antiphase” with the original sound such that the sum of the two waves is equal to zero. While the phase shifted sound sounds exactly like the original sound, it is its exact opposite.

This brings us to a beautiful insight from Rabbi Rafael Baruch Sorotzkin, the Head of the prestigious Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland in the last century. Rabbi Sorotzkin sees in Rashi’s words an allusion to the tumultuous events of the mid-twentieth century. On one hand, we saw the Voice of G-d breaking cedars in the holocaust that destroyed one third of world Jewry. On the other hand, we witnessed the Voice of G-d in its majesty in the creation of the State of Israel. Nevertheless, G-d left room for a person to claim that he could not hear the Voice of G-d. Even though G-d’s Voice was powerful, it was stifled such that a person who was standing “outside the Tent of Meeting” could not hear it. Rabbi Sorotzkin asserts that G-d intentionally created His world in a way that a person must strain in order to hear His Voice. G-d wants a person to be able to logically attribute events to nature or to geopolitics but yet to be able to internalize that he is hearing the Voice of G-d.

It makes sense that the Voice of G-d should not be unequivocally identifiable “outside the Tent of Meeting” – in our corporeal world. Rabbi YY Rubinstein tells the story of a hypothetical research test performed on two groups of people. One group is told to keep the Torah scrupulously. The other group is told to disregard everything written in the Torah: to eat cheeseburgers, cheat on their spouses, and treat their parents like dirt. After forty years, the two groups meet. What would happen if the first group are all ludicrously wealthy and have not aged a day while the second group is living in abject squalor and are infected with coronavirus? We would keep the Torah because there was no other choice. We would forfeit our free will. So G-d leaves room for doubt. But this us leads down an equally problematic path: why is G-d playing games with us? Where do we even begin to look for Him?

The answer lies in ANC. In the words of Albert Einstein, “The L-rd G-d is subtle but malicious He is not”. G-d does not hide anything. Everything that occurs in our world perfectly reflects what is going on behind the scenes. The only difference is that our world is “out of phase”. Our actions always spur a heavenly reaction but a delay between action and reaction, between cause and effect, blurs the connection between the two. The end result is that when “what-we-see” is overlaid on “what-really-is”, the sum total is zero. We hear neither the Voice of G-d nor the background noise. We hear absolutely nothing.

Understanding this mechanism can help us to uncover the Voice of G-d. At this very moment, a large percentage of the world is locked down in their homes, reducing social interaction to the bare minimum, in an attempt to defeat the coronavirus. Millions will become ill and many will die. Unemployment is skyrocketing. Why did G-d do this to us? Why is He destroying our social fabric and our global economy? To understand the answer to these questions, we would need unfettered access to the Tent of Meeting. But consider this: This morning, my entire family met together for the first time in a very long while, albeit via Zoom. This afternoon, Jews from around the world will cry out together to G-d, albeit virtually, reciting prayers and blowing the shofar, begging Him to rescind His decree. The same coronavirus threatens all of our health, the same world economy threatens all of our financial futures, and we all cry out to the same G-d. If we try to listen but we still hear nothing, then we should have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in the Tent of Meeting. I would not be at all surprised at all if the word “unity” were involved.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.

[1] Why Rashi had to make essentially the same comment twice is a topic for another day.

[2] The misconception that the Torah must be scientifically correct is the primary cause for completely and entirely misunderstanding the story of creation as it appears in the Torah.

[3] I can’t wait to look at this lesson twenty years from now and compare the current technology with the “cutting edge” technology of 5780.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty 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". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. 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 2000 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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