Seeing the speaking mouth: A Jewish approach to the material world

The creative impulse takes on progressively greater shape, finally culminating in the tangible creation of the physical universe

 Sunrise is seen from the summit of Mount Sinai in Egypt. (photo credit: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)
Sunrise is seen from the summit of Mount Sinai in Egypt.
(photo credit: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

One of the most mysterious verses in the Bible occurs in connection with the revelation at Mount Sinai. After the Jewish people receive the Ten Commandments, the Torah says: All the people saw the thunder and lighting, the blare of the horn, the mountain smoking (Exodus 20:15).

How could the people “see” the thunder and the sound of the shofar? Some commentators say this was an example of synesthesia, the ability of some people to hear colors and see sound. Others say the idea of “seeing sound” was used to convey the utter mystery of the experience at Sinai.

But perhaps there is a message here about seeing itself. It’s often been pointed out that seeing and hearing are different ways of processing information. Seeing involves parallel processing. We take in visual knowledge instantaneously.

Hearing, on the other end, involves sequential processing. When we listen to a piece of music, we hear one note at a time. It can take us 30 minutes or more to hear a symphony, whereas a painting we see immediately.

So the term “seeing the thunder” can be understood to mean “a seeing that is like hearing,” a seeing over time. That is, the Torah encourages us when we see, not to trust our first impression, but to spend more time looking. When we listen to music, we know there is another note behind the one we are hearing. In the same way, we are encouraged to see the first impressions of our eye not as only part of story, and to seek what is behind the image.

MOSES ON Mount Sinai as depicted by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1895. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)MOSES ON Mount Sinai as depicted by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1895. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

We say that “seeing is believing.” But the eyes are portrayed in the Bible as deceivers. Hagar stares directly at a well of water and doesn’t see it. Judah mistakes Tamar for a prostitute. And in the climactic story of Genesis, the brothers of Joseph do not recognize him when they come to Egypt looking for food, though he is standing directly in front of them.

By itself, the visual sense is untrustworthy. It is only when we combine the visual with the auditory, when we see in the way that we hear, that we get true understanding. Thus, when Joseph dramatically reveals himself to his brothers, at first they stare at him wordlessly in disbelief. Finally, he says to them: “And behold, your eyes see, that it is my mouth that is speaking to you.” (Genesis 45:12)

“And behold, your eyes see, that it is my mouth that is speaking to you.”

Genesis 45:12

What is the meaning of this strange and wonderful phrase?

It’s not likely that Joseph meant that his brothers visually recognized the shape of his moving mouth and that this was the evidence that convinced them of his identity. Rather, this was an experience of seeing over time, seeing that is like hearing.

Some messages are only understood over time. When Joseph’s brothers came down to Egypt looking for food, he recognized them, but they did not recognize him. He dealt with them harshly.

The brothers were beside themselves. They said to one another:

Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked at his anguish, yet didn’t listen as he pleaded with us. (Genesis 46:22).

At the original scene in which Joseph’s brothers threw him into the pit, there is no mention of his cries for help. It’s as if the sound of Joseph’s cries did not actually reach the ears of his brothers until 20 years later when they stood before him in Egypt.

The cries of Joseph could not be grasped by his brothers instantaneously. They could only be understood if perceived over time. During the 22 years of separation, the brothers saw how profoundly the loss of Joseph impacted their father.

Even more importantly, Judah experienced the loss of his own two sons. No longer the wounded child, but the bereft father, Judah now understood his own father’s grief from a completely different perspective.

When the brothers threw Joseph in the pit, they saw, but they did not hear. Only over time did they develop the ability to see the speaking mouth, to see in the way that we hear.

A Jewish spiritual practice that articulates this idea in a particularly compelling way is the huppah. The huppah is what a house might look like if we could magnify the house exponentially so that the empty spaces in this solid became visible to us. What is the point of a house with such wide-open empty spaces?

Some years ago, I went to see Israeli artist Micha Ulman’s installation, “The Wedding Scene” at the Israel Museum. At first, all you see is red sand scattered on a white floor. But then you learn the back story of this art piece. Ulman had staged a mock wedding in this space, complete with huppah, a wedding couple, guests, and even a faux rabbi.

The artist then took a bucket of red sand and threw the sand in all the spaces where the wedding was not. Finally, he asked the guests, the couple and the rabbi to walk over benches to leave the scene of the wedding in a way that would not disturb the red sand. The tables and the huppah were removed in the same way. What was left was the red sand, the visual traces of the wedding that was. And what the viewer is asked to do is reconstruct in his or her imagination the original wedding scene based on the scant visual clues in front of us.

The Jewish wedding ceremony is a prototype of this kind of seeing. If you attend a wedding and you know nothing about the loving couple and their family, you will see red sand. What makes a wedding so moving is knowing what has happened in the empty spaces of the huppah. One parent is remembering “the little girl he carried.” Another is remembering the pregnancy that almost wasn’t. The grandparents are remembering the day they set foot in America, facing an uncertain future.

Only the person who is privy to this history will understand the meaning of the tears that are being shed at these moments. To see the tears without knowing the history is to miss the wedding itself. It’s to see red sand.

The mystical view of Creation is predicated on this premise, as well. We can understand this by way of analogy. A Picasso painting is a concrete manifestation of something deep within Picasso’s soul. So, when we are contemplating a Picasso painting, Picasso is speaking to us. To see the paint and miss the Picasso is to see red sand.

So it is, say the Jewish mystics, with God’s Creation. What may appear to be solid is simply the last stage of God’s self-expression. The creative impulse takes on progressively greater shape, finally culminating in the tangible creation of the physical universe.

Scientists tell us that at the molecular level, the solidity of the universe is only apparent. If we could magnify a chair, we would see a pattern of molecules moving about with lots of spaces in between. Fortunately, we see the chair as inert, because we would soon experience vertigo if we perceived the world as being in constant motion.

But our ancestors were more concerned about the opposite danger, that we would see the universe as more dead than alive. They wanted us to see the Picasso behind the paint, the dynamic movement behind what appears to be immobile. The Psalmist proclaims: The heavens declare the glory of God (Psalms 19:1)

The heavens only appear to be motionless when we look at the night sky. To see the speaking mouth is to hear the heavens speaking, to imagine the motion over time behind what appears to be a flat-screen.

Great art is not the end of the line. Picasso’s art invites conversation. The huppah is not only about reconstructing the past, it’s about visualizing the love of the future.

This is why God’s intangible spirit always crowns the creative process. The finishing touch of the creation of the Mishkan is God’s soul filling it. God creates Adam of the dust of the earth, but then breathes into him the spirit of life. And the final stage of the creation of the universe is Shabbat, the soul that God breathes into the world. The universe is not a golem. It is alive. It breathes.

Through the eyes of Jewish practice, everything in the material world is speaking to us, suggesting as yet unrealized possibilities. The physical is always more than physical. In the Sephardi version of the Grace After Meals, we say:

“God satisfies the thirsty soul.”

Our material experience of eating becomes a gateway for something far more expansive and beautiful: our thirst for meaning, our hunger for human connection.

And so it is throughout Jewish practice. The cycle of the moon suggests a redemptive future, a transformation of the human heart. Through the Birchot Hashahar, the “blessings of the dawn,” we experience rising in the morning as suggestive of a spiritual awakening. The physical rest of Shabbat becomes emblematic of a deeper contentment that awaits all humanity in the future.

And so it is with the tangible markers of our people. Ullman’s red sand can be understood as a metaphor for the land of Israel itself. The topography of Israel is not especially remarkable. What moves people when they visit Israel is the space in between the red sand. Everywhere you go in Israel you see barely visible hints of a great story, a huppah with mostly empty space.

Millions of people from around the world visit the Western Wall. It’s not that visually imposing. What impresses us is the empty space of this huppah. The Wall extends below ground another 40 feet, so we see only 60% of the wall’s true height. More importantly, the Kotel is only a retaining wall of the vast Temple complex which we can now visualize only in our imagination.

We could see the Kotel as representing the hope that someday we will be able to rebuild the Temple exactly as it was in biblical times. Such a view offers us comfort and stability. But consider Isaiah’s view of the future Jerusalem: “Broaden the place of your tent... for you will burst out to the right and to the left.” (Isaiah 54:2)

Isaiah is not looking for mere restoration. He wants something more. He imagines a Jerusalem that is at the center of a new human understanding: “For out of Zion shall go instruction, and the word of God from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2:3)

In asking the Jewish people to “expand the tent,” Isaiah is speaking of more than physical boundaries. He is asking us to expand our conceptual boundaries, to imagine ourselves in far more expansive ways than we have before, a time when “the wolf lying down with the lamb” is not a literal return to the Garden of Eden, but a new political order in which nations will live in peace with each other.

So rather than look at the Kotel as a mere culmination, let us imagine it as an Afikomen. At the Seder, we break in two the middle of three pieces of matza. We leave the smaller piece to be eaten soon, and we hide the larger piece to be eaten at the end of the Seder. The rabbis tell us that the Afikomen is the bigger part of the matza to teach us that the future redemption will be greater than the one we have already experienced.

For this kind of dream to be realized, a different kind of seeing is required – seeing the way we hear. For this kind of seeing, it is not enough for us fill the empty spaces in the huppah with fond memories of the past. We need to imagine a love that doesn’t yet exist. We need to see the Kotel not as the remnant of the final solidification of our dreams. Rather, we need to see the Kotel as the smaller part of the matza, the smaller visible part of the Wall. The part of the Wall that we cannot see is the Afikomen, a future that is far more expansive than anything we have created in the past.

The material world can be a prison or a portal. It can freeze us in a permanently solid state, or it can suggest hidden possibilities. When Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, he did not change his physical essence in any way. The person who stood before them as a stranger a moment before, physically, was exactly the same as the person they now saw as their brother. Joseph simply asked his brothers to look at him differently, not as the Joseph they were sure they knew, but as a Joseph they could come to know in a new way: “Behold you can see that it is my mouth speaking with you.”

By learning to see the speaking mouth, to sense the Picasso behind the paint, and to feel in the presence of the Kotel the part of the Afikomen we cannot see, we, too can learn to see in the material world, not the end point, but an invitation to new possibilities.  ■

Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum is rabbi emeritus of Herzl-Ner Tamid Congregation in Mercer Island, Washington.