“And all the people saw the sounds .... ” Exodus 20:18
When the Jewish people stood at the foot of Sinai and there was thunder and lighting and God’s presence was experienced, we find the strange language that the people saw the sounds. This kind of experience actually has a name and it is called synesthesia.
One way of defining synesthesia is to say that senses become confused. A better way to define it is that each sense enhances the other so that the creative mind finds expression through a less obvious sense. About 4% of the general population has synesthesia.
When our son was younger, he seemed to have synesthesia. He would say that something sounded like blue, or I remember one time singing the Hebrew phrase, Ein Od, (There Is None Else) and his saying that the song looked like a woolly mammoth.
It is puzzling that at the moment of receiving revelation, which was God’s announcement of the Ten Commandments, that we would see anything. After all, the first commandments warn us against making images. How could it be that at the very moment we are being told not to trust our eyes, we use them for hearing?
In the book of Numbers, we are told not to stray or lust after our hearts’ desire and what we see with our eyes. As visual beings, it is easy for us to think we know truth with our eyes. But the Torah teaches that our eyes deceive us. Anyone who has ever seen an excellent magician knows that tricks can easily be played on our eyes.
Given that our eyes tell lies, how can it be that we see the sounds of revelation? For one, the experience of Mount Sinai was palpable. I can imagine that revelation could not only be seen and heard, but could be smelled and touched. It was a full body experience. It was as if the entire people of Israel were bathed in a mikveh (a ritual bath) of God’s immersive waters.
While we know that smell is the sense most closely tied to memory, visuals win second place. Another reason we may see the sounds is because being able to recall something that we have seen is much easier than being able to hear the sound of something that we have heard.
When I think about the most important or moving moments in my life, I can see them in my mind’s eye, but I can’t quite hear them. It is this touchstone of visual memory which lays the foundation for who I am and who I may become. While Judaism is not a religion of images, this strange verse offers us an entry point into remembering that once we stood before God and not just heard, but saw the presence.
Rabbi Elyssa Joy Austerklein is rabbi at Beth El Congregation in Akron.