וְכׇל־הָעָם֩ רֹאִ֨ים אֶת־הַקּוֹלֹ֜ת וְאֶת־הַלַּפִּידִ֗ם וְאֵת֙ ק֣וֹל הַשֹּׁפָ֔ר וְאֶת־הָהָ֖ר עָשֵׁ֑ן וַיַּ֤רְא הָעָם֙ וַיָּנֻ֔עוּ וַיַּֽעַמְד֖וּ מֵֽרָחֹֽק
All the people saw the thunder and lightning, the call of the shofar, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.
On this Shabbat we enter into the month of Elul, so the Shabbat itself is not only named for the parashat hashavua (Torah reading of the week) but also the holiday of the new month: Rosh Hodesh. Once upon a time the new month was a significant holy day; for example, in the ancient story of Saul and David, a Rosh Hodesh holiday meal at the king’s table is the setting for high drama (see I Samuel 20 for the fascinating details).
The parashah is named Re’eh, and it begins with a simple, unadorned summons: “see.” It is meant figuratively; we are being urged to think, to consider, to try to understand.
רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה
See, I set before you this day blessing and curse (Devarim 11.26)
Jewish tradition tends to focus upon hearing as the primary sense; this is logical for a people so ancient that we begin our story before the written word came to prominence. Then, information shared was embodied: a messenger carried a story, a witness testified to an event. Communication came from me to you and from you to me, and any written text that the messenger carried was only an aide memoire. And so of course we as a people are urged to shema, to listen, and to heed.
Halakhah, the Jewish guide for our spiritual path, developed a formal social understanding of the importance of hearing, reflected in the fact that those who cannot hear could not testify in a judicial process. No other sense is so central in this way, possibly because those who cannot see are not significantly disadvantaged in an oral culture. In ancient Aramaic, the idiom for “blind” is sagei nahora, “full of light.”
What happened to make us so much more dependent upon the written word, disembodied as it is? When did we start trusting what we see more than what we hear? How did we start saying “it is written, therefore it is true”? Is it possible that what we truly need to learn to “see” is that no one human sense is self-sufficient? Perhaps this is the founding wisdom of the halakhic ruling that no one witness is enough to convict: an individual cannot even witness against oneself without a second – i.e. in Jewish law you cannot “turn yourself in”.
Interestingly enough, the story of receiving the Torah at Sinai describes an experience of synesthesia, in which neural pathways are opened to multiple senses. In this case, we saw the sound of the shofar. It’s significant that no individual human sense could “make sense” of the theophany; it underscores the communal nature of the experience. We stand before Eternity together, and when one of us finds that one’s vision too overwhelmed, as a supportive spiritual community we can hold hands until sight returns.
During this month of Elul which begins on this Shabbat, may you answer the call to see figuratively: may you behold, and consider, and taste, and hear, and come to recognize the real depths and promise of the gift of your life. Soon the Shofar will sound, and you will be urged to see.