Seeing and Listening

Thinking about the title word of yesterday’s parashah, I wondered about the two sensory metaphors we use for learning. Here our parashah opens “re’eih”– see. But usually the Torah uses “shema“, to listen. In fact, shemi’ah appears later in the very same paragraph.1

כורְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה. 26 Behold, I put before you today a blessing and a curse:
כז  אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל מִצְו‍ֹת ה אֱלֹקֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם. 27 the blessing: if you listen to the commandments of Hashem your G-d, which I command you to day;
כח  וְהַקְּלָלָה, אִם לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ אֶל מִצְו‍ֹת ה אֱלֹקֵיכֶם, וְסַרְתֶּם מִן הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם,  לָלֶכֶת אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדַעְתֶּם.  {ס} 28 and the curse: if you do not listen to the commandments of the Hashem your G-d, but turn way from the way which I command you today, to go after other gods, which you have not known.

Notice that there are two differences between shemi’ah and re’iahYes, they refer to different senses. But also, whereas shemi’ah is an active process — it means to listen, not to hear, re’iyah is to see, not specifically to look.

I realized over Shabbos that the question of theodicy is consistently associated with vision. For example, after the Golden Calf, Moshe asks to see Hashem’s ways:

יג  וְעַתָּה אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ, הוֹדִעֵנִי נָא אֶת-דְּרָכֶךָ, וְאֵדָעֲךָ, לְמַעַן אֶמְצָא-חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ; וּרְאֵה, כִּי עַמְּךָ הַגּוֹי הַזֶּה. 13 Now if I have found Grace in Your Sight, show me now Your Ways, that I could know You, to the end that I may find grace in Thy sight; and consider that this nation is Thy people.’
יד  וַיֹּאמַר:  פָּנַי יֵלֵכוּ, וַהֲנִחֹתִי לָךְ. 14 And He said: ‘My Presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.’
כב  וְהָיָה בַּעֲבֹר כְּבֹדִי, וְשַׂמְתִּיךָ בְּנִקְרַת הַצּוּר וְשַׂכֹּתִי כַפִּי עָלֶיךָ עַד עָבְרִי. 22 And it will have been that as My Glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock and cover you with My “Hand” until I have passed by.
כג  וַהֲסִרֹתִי, אֶת-כַּפִּי וְרָאִיתָ אֶת-אֲחֹרָי, וּפָנַי לֹא יֵרָאוּ.  {פ} 23 And I will take away My hand, and thou shalt see My back; but My face shall not be seen.’

And the Chasam Sofer explains in a thought that often gets quoted, that this is a deep truth about how Hashem runs the world. We can not see Hashem’s plan as events unfold. We can hope, someday, after the fact, to get some glimpse of it, “from behind”.

Similarly here. Hashem asks us to “listen” to the commandments and “see” His reward and punishment.

Moshe’s prophecy is “Vayedaber Hashem“, Hashem “speaks”. A prophet’s mind clothes his message in visions, as in “Chazon Yeshaiahu“. An earlier pasuq in Shemos makes this point:

ב  וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹקְים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי ה. 2 And G-d spoke to Moses, and said to him, “I am Hashem
ג  וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּקֵל שַׁקי; וּשְׁמִי ה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם. 3 and I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as G-d Who Sets Limits, but as My name Hashem I did not let them know Me.”

Which then made me think of a difference in language I noticed between the two Talmuds. In the Bavli, when a conclusion can be derived from something we “shema mina — we listen from this”. But in the Yerushalmi, such conclusions are more often “chamei” — “we see”.

At this point I think I saw a pattern. The Yerushalmi has a lot less confidence in deductions than the Bavli. To the extent that the word “ba’ei“, which means “to ask” in the sense of requesting someone to teach the halakhah in some case (as it does in the Bavli), is also used to introduce a proposed novellum. An amora requesting a ruling is the same language as if he were suggesting one from his own reasoning.

Moshe’s prophecy is more sure than that of other prophets, except when it comes to theodicy, understanding suffering or for that matter why there are wicked people who are enjoying their lives, for which there is never a sure answer. Again, sight being used as a metaphor for the less sure mode of learning.

Which is an interesting contrast to “seeing is believing”.

1 If you look at the wording, Hashem doesn’t say that there is a blessing that Hashem will give us if we listen to the mitzvos, and a curse if we do not and instead pursue idolatry. Rather, the listening to the mitzvos itself is the blessing. The Sifri makes a point of this. See “The Gift of Justice” in the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah Reader.)

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  1. Morah Betsy says:

    In American Sign Language, the sign for שְׁמַע is actually the sign for “Pay attention.” Not Hear, or Listen, or See.

    I love language!

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