Seeing and Believing

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Today’s reading has some very insightful commentary…

In fact, much of this week’s portion is concerned with precisely this theme: the primacy of hearing over seeing and the enduring power of instructions heard and spoken, in contrast to the fleeting nature of the visual world. Indeed, although we speak comfortably today about “the’ Sh’ma, there are at least three different times in this parashah when Moses repeats his commandment for the people Israel to listen (4:1, 5:1, and 6:4).

Why, then, is Moses so intent on teaching his people this particular lesson? In our parashah, Deuteronomy asserts that Moses not only was sent to liberate Israel from slavery, but also was positioned to teach the Israelites certain principles of proper Jewish belief (see 4:14 and 5:28). If this is indeed Moses’s charge, then his repeated exhortations about proper spiritual listening must be intended to instruct the people about the rudimentary skills needed for their emerging religious lives.

In order to justify its own authority, the Torah must ultimately rationalize obedience to one god (who cannot be seen at all) and undermine obedience to the idols of other gods (idols which, obviously, can be seen). To this end, Moses assumes an anti-idolatry stance so vigorous that he suggests (in 4:15-19) that opposition to idol-worship–not the unification of Israel, not the coronation of himself as prophet, and not even the revelation of God’s Torah–was the sole purpose of Israel’s experience at Sinai.

Moses fears that visual observation, even of common natural phenomena, can lead one to the mistaken belief that some power besides God is involved in the governance and maintenance of the cosmos. (Note that his namesake, Moses Maimonides, refines this point further in his Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 1:1; 2:1). And so he teaches Israel to depend less on what it can see than on what it can hear. Even when retelling the story of the Revelation at Sinai, Moses downplays its memorable visual spectacle–the mountain engulfed in smoke and flame–and focuses instead on what Israel heard there. Only the words you hear originate in heaven, he insists; what you see is hopelessly earthbound (Deuteronomy 4:36).

I had not thought of the Sh’ma in this light but, in reflecting on the commentary it makes a lot of sense. Depend less on what you can see than what you can hear is good advice.

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