By Rabbi Boruch Leff
Would you rather be blind or deaf? God forbid it should ever happen, but let’s say you had to make a choice between having your sense of sight be removed or your sense of hearing. Which of the two would you rather have? An idea from this week’s Parsha weighs in on this question.
The very first verse (Devarim 11:26) states: “SEE, I have placed before you today, blessings and curses.” Did God place anything tangible and visible before them? No, God was describing intellectual concepts of blessings and curses. So what did He mean when He said, “See”?
Obviously, the word “see” is used here to refer to a comprehension. We use “see” in reference to an understanding of something as in, “Do you see what I’m telling you?” because sight is our most reliable and strongest sense. (See Radak in Zecharyah 1:9.)
In order to explain this idea, let’s take a dog and his sense of smell as an example. Since a dog’s most reliable and strongest sense is that of smell, if he could speak and wanted to convey his grasp of an idea, he would say, “I smell it! Now I understand what you mean.”
If sight is our strongest sense and is therefore the reason why our Parsha begins with that word, we are led to some questions. First, there are times the Torah uses the word “hear” to refer to understanding. For example, “Hear, Israel, God, Our Lord, God is One.” Why wouldn’t the Torah always use the word “see” in allusion to internalizing a comprehension of something if it is our most reliable sense?
In addition, if sight is our strongest sense, one should be more seriously liable for blinding someone than for deafening a person. Yet, the Talmud Baba Kama 85b, rules that if you deafen someone you must pay much more than if you blinded him. The opposite should be the case!
In order to answer both of these questions, we must introduce another factor into the equation beyond the issue of strongest and most reliable sense. That issue is communication with others.
Helen Keller once said, “If you would ask me: if I could have one of my senses back, either sight or hearing, which would I choose? I would choose hearing. Being blind cuts you off from the world but being deaf cuts you off from relating and communicating with people. I choose people over the world.”
Hearing is more valuable when it comes to paying damages because losing the ability to relate and share with others is a more serious deprivation. Sight may be our strongest sense but human relationships and communication is more vital to human existence.
The Torah wishes to convey different and specific messages when it chooses to use either “see” or “hear” to mean an understanding of something. When the Torah uses the word “shema,” “hear,” the indication is that we are to make a commitment which involves our intellect.
“Re’eh,” – to see – means we are to make a commitment that involves our emotions. To “hear” requires a greater and deeper understanding, and to “see” requires a greater reaction to an understanding that is already present.
“Hearing” requires a greater and deeper understanding because when we are able to hear someone we are able to truly communicate well with them. (As significant as sign language is for the hearing impaired, it can’t fully replace the highest and deepest levels of communication between people that is experienced through hearing.) “Sight” is used to garner our emotions to a great reaction for an understanding that we already have because sight is our strongest and most reliable sense. Seeing really is believing and I can commit to something much more easily when I see it rather than if I only hear it.
This explains a most fascinating difference in phraseology between the Zohar and the Talmud. Very often, when the Talmud presents new information and facts, the introductory phrase, “Come and hear,” in Aramaic “Ta Shema,” is used. When the Zohar presents new information, the introductory phrase, “Come and see,” “Yuh chazi,” is utilized. Why the difference?
According to what we have discussed, it becomes clear. Talmud includes all of the revealed, rational Torah, which is known as “nigleh,” revealed. This section of Torah entails great and profound logical thought, and understanding of the intellect. This is why “hearing” is most necessary since “hearing” achieves clear communication on a rational plain.
Zohar is the chief work of Jewish mysticism and goes beyond the realm of rationale and logic to the world of the supernatural and the hidden. It is “nistar,” the concealed Torah. “Seeing” is the sense that can rouse our emotions to a great reaction and the Zohar’s main function is to strengthen our passions and emotions for our soul and spirit. This is why Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (circa 1940, known as the Chazon Ish) would say that when learning Zohar one experiences the sweetness of our Father in Heaven.
In the first verse in Parshat Re’eh, “see” is most appropriate based on the subject matter. God is describing a ceremony of oaths for the observance of the Torah that involve blessings and curses. This ceremony wouldn’t take place until much later, after the Jews would cross the Jordan River into Israel. Why then does God say, “See, I have placed before you TODAY, blessings and curses”? The blessings and curses were not being placed before them right now, so why say “today”?
There IS something that is taking place today. God is transmitting the knowledge and awareness that there will be a ceremony of blessings and curses. This event requires a tremendous amount of preparation and the Jewish people need to be made aware of this way in advance – “today.” “Today” is meant for them to internalize and make a commitment that involves their emotions to prepare for the awesome event of the blessings and curses. It is not something to be dealt with in the distant future. It is to be reckoned with and prepared for now – today.
See what I’m saying?