Hearing Is Believing

"Hear, O Israel! Hashem our God, Hashem is One."
The Shema is the basic credo of the Jewish people. It is our twice-daily declaration of God's Unity and the last words to leave our lips when we pass from this world. But why is it that we say, "Hear, O Israel"? What are we supposed to hear? Why don't we say, "Look, O Israel"? or "Know, O Israel"? How are we supposed to "hear" that "God is One"? What does God's Unity sound like? Nothing in the Torah is coincidental or merely poetic. If the Torah says, "Hear, O Israel!" there must be some essential connection between the sense of hearing and our belief that God is One.

Another question: When the Jewish people stood at Sinai, the Torah writes that they "saw the voices" (Shemot 20:15). At Sinai, there was a dislocation of the normal perception of the senses. The sounds of Sinai were perceived as visions. Sound registered as sight. This is called synesthesia. Seeing sound. What does it mean to see sound? Furthermore, Rashi explains that seeing sound "is impossible anywhere else." Why should it be that only at Sinai this phenomenon happened, and how does Rashi know that such an occurrence is impossible at any other time or place?

Hearing and seeing are very different. Seeing operates as close to instantaneously as we can discern. Traveling at 186,000 miles per second, light is the fastest thing in the universe. Sound is comparatively slow, moving at about 800 miles an hour. We experience these different speeds when a plane breaks the sound barrier. A plane traveling at more than 800 mph causes a "sonic boom." We hear the sound of the plane breaking the sound barrier only after we see it passing over us.

There is, however, a more fundamental difference between sight and sound than their relative speeds. When we see something, we perceive it as a complete whole instantaneously. After this first sight, we may "walk around" the picture that our eyes present, analyzing it in greater detail, focusing on one element and then another. The essence of vision, however, is that we perceive a complete entity in a single instant.

Hearing, on the other hand, is only understood as a sequence. Our brains order discrete pieces of information, giving them substance and definition. No sound can exist without time. No word can be said or understood, no note of music played or enjoyed, without a certain expansion into time. Thus, we receive sound in a time frame, and we assemble the pieces to form sounds and syllables, notes and music, thoughts and ideas. The process of sound assembly is not instant. We have to construct and organize the input we receive from our ears.

When you listen to a recording of a lecture, the ambient noise of the room can be very distracting. At the time of the lecture, you weren't aware of the constant drone of the traffic in the background, the noise of the fans and the air conditioner. On tape, however, those extraneous sounds vie for your attention. A sound recorder is not the human ear. It is an indiscriminate "vacuum cleaner" of sound. The human ear, however, takes only the elements of the sound that it requires. It "hears" - it discriminates, assembles, and creates a "sound picture."

This world is like a sound picture. The Hebrew word for "world" is olam, which is connected to the word ne'elam, which means "vanished." On the level of seeing, God has "vanished" from the world. You can't see God in the world. He is hidden. This world seems to be a myriad of different powers, like background sounds on a tape, all vying for supremacy. If anything, the world looks just the opposite of what we declare in the Shema, that God is One. Because you can't see God's Unity in this world.

You have to hear it.

An atheist once asked Rabbi Akiva, "Who created the world?" Rabbi Akiva replied, "God." The atheist said, "Prove it!" Rabbi Akiva said, "Who wove your shirt?" The atheist replied, "A weaver." Rabbi Akiva replied, "Prove it! Just as your shirt testifies to the existence of the weaver, so the world testifies to the existence of God." But you have to hear it. You have to assemble the evidence. Or you can turn a deaf ear.

If you tune your ears carefully, you can also hear an unmistakable pattern in events. If you listen carefully to the un-historical history of the Jewish people, weighing it in the balance of probability, you will hear God's Unity. If you listen to all the seemingly coincidental events in your life, you will hear Him.

The reason we say, Hear, O Israel!" is that in this world you cannot see Him. You have to take the disparate, seemingly random elements of this world and assemble them into a cogent whole. To sense the Oneness of God, twice a day a Jew is obliged to declare: "Hear, O Israel! God our God, God is One." You have to hear it. Because you cannot see it.

With one exception.

There was one time in history that you didn't have to hear in order to perceive God's Unity in this world ? one moment when you could actually see it. At Mount Sinai. That's what the Torah means when it says that the Jewish people "saw" the voices. They saw with an incontrovertible clarity those things that usually need to be "heard." The Unity of God was self-evident. Crystal clear as a picture. They didn't have to hear the Unity of God because they could see it.

However, this is a Shema Yisrael world. The purpose of our creation is for us to hear the Unity that is invisible to the eyes.

Seeing is not believing. Seeing is much more than believing. When you see, you don't have to believe. It's in front of your eyes. From Sinai onward, the Jewish people would need to assemble God's Unity piece by piece like an unraveling melody.

Hearing is believing.

More articles available at Ohr Somayach's website.