Author's note on Parshat Ve’etchanan
Seeing is believing. If so, why does the quintessential expression of Jewish faith begin “Hear, O Israel”? Why not “See, O Israel”? Throughout Parshat Ve’etchanan, Moshe reminds the people that they have seen great things. In another very famous statement of faith, Moshe says “Ata Hareita La’da’at – you have been shown in order to know that G-d is G-d and there is nothing else but Him.”
In fact, in this week’s parsha, there seems to be a literary battle between seeing and hearing and what should form the basis of our faith. The verb “to see” (in its various forms) is used 14 times and the verb “to hear” (in its various forms) is used 23 times until Moshe says “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad.” Thereafter, neither verb is used for the rest of the parsha. So Shema – hearing – wins the “gold medal” for how we connect to our faith, right? Not so fast.
This Shabbat is Shabbat Nachamu; the Shabbat when we are supposed to hear the stirring words of comfort from the book of Isaiah after Tisha B’Av. Interestingly, the last verse of the Haftorah is “Se’u Marom Einechem, Ur’u Mi Bara Eleh.” “Lift your eyes to the heavens and see who created these.” Again, are we to hear words of comfort or look up and derive comfort from seeing that Hashem created all this?
When we learn by seeing, the effect is almost immediate. However, as Samuel Johnson (18th Century English literary giant) wrote, “Distance has the same effect on the mind as on the eye” and as we move away from what we saw it fades in our memory. On the other hand, to learn something by hearing requires much greater concentration. We need to block out distractions and focus on what the speaker is saying. When we really grasp the idea we are ready to say “Oh – Now I see what you are saying.” Actually, we heard the speaker; we didn’t see anything. Yet through our concentration and understanding we can “see” quite clearly and the message (or the vision) stays with us.
This idea is actually embodied in the Hebrew for Isaiah’s statement Se’u Marom Einechem (Lift your eyes to the Heavens). In Hebrew, the initial letters of each word in that phrase are Shin, Mem and Ayin which spell Shema. In fact, some have the practice of reciting the verse from Isaiah before reciting the Shema as a reminder that our statement of faith is based on our understanding of who created all this. When we cover our eyes, recite the Shema, hear its words, and concentrate on its meaning, we are able to lift our eyes to the heavens and actually begin to see (understand) who created all this. Sometimes by listening very carefully, we can see things from a different perspective.