And Jethro, the priest of Midian … heard of all that G-d had done for Moses and for His people Israel…. And Jethro … came to Moses, to the desert, where he was encamped at the mount of G-d….
And Jethro said: “Now I know that G-d is greater than all gods…”
It is a principle of Torah law that “hearing is not comparable to seeing.” This means that even if a person has been fully informed about something and has absolute trust in the information, it is still not comparable to actually seeing it with his own eyes. This is not to say that a person cannot be fully convinced with second-hand information; a court of law, for example, will decide on life-and-death issues based on testimony presented to it. But there is a level of conviction that can only be attained through sight.
One example of this principle is to be found in the above-quoted verses describing Jethro’s recognition of the One G-d. The Torah tells us that “Jethro heard of all that G-d had done for Moses and for His people Israel”—heard about the Exodus, the splitting of the Red Sea, the miraculous victory in thewar against Amalek. Nevertheless, it was only when he came to the Israelite camp at Mount Sinai and witnessed, firsthand, the special relationship they enjoyed with G-d, that he was able to say: “Now I know that G-d is greater than all gods.”
There are other places in the Torah from which this principle can be deduced, including several that appear earlier in the Torah than the story of Jethro. For example, in the 45th chapter of Genesis we read how Jacob’s sons told him that Joseph, whom he had mourned as dead for twenty-two years, was alive in Egypt. At first, he did not believe them; but after they provided him with conclusive proof, telling him things that Joseph had told them that no one else could have known, “the spirit of Jacob was revived.” Nevertheless, it was only when Jacob saw Joseph with his own eyes that he said, “Now I can die in peace, having seen your face, because you are alive.” Jacob’s knowledge that Joseph was alive, though complete before he saw his face, was now on an entirely different level.
Another example is from Exodus 14:10: “And the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians are marching after them; and they were very much afraid; and the Children of Israel cried out to G-d.”
But G-d had already told them, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue [you].” So the Jewish people already knew what was to come. Nevertheless, actually seeing the pursuing Egyptians provoked a response in them that their prior knowledge did not.
A Man of Mind
Yet there is something unique about Jethro’s case. There is something about Jethro’s experience that gives us an appreciation of the rule “hearing is not comparable to seeing” which cannot be acquired from the earlier examples.
Our sages tell us that Jethro was a life-long seeker, a man who had studied and sampled every philosophy and theology on the face of earth before arriving at the truth of the one G-d.
Jethro was a true scientist, one to whom the mind is the highest arbiter of truth. The true scientist completely distrusts his senses, relying instead on “hard data” and what the laws of logic deduce from them. If these conclusions contradict what his senses tell him, no matter; the logical deductions of his mind will always overrule what is sensed or felt to be true.
One would therefore think that when a man like Jethro deduces that something is true, there can be no greater validation for him than what his mind has proven to him. If he hears about the G-d of Israel, weighs the evidence in his mind and concludes that He is the true G-d, what can be added by seeing the divine presence in the Israelite camp?
Yet when Jethro arrived at the foot of Mount Sinai, he proclaimed: “Now I know.” If it were only a question of “proof,” then indeed, for a man like Jethro, seeing does not provide any greater proof than his hearing and his logical validation of what he heard. But proof is only about the thing, while seeing is a direct experience of the thing itself.
When we hear about something or deduce it from logical proofs, the mind collects the evidence piece by piece, detail by detail, and then assembles the pieces into a perception of the subject. But when we see something, we “take in” the totality of the thing itself even before we are aware of the details. Our eyes provide us with a link to the essence of the thing, with a vision of its very soul.
This is why G-d wanted us to see Him at Sinai, and why the culmination of history is described as a time when “all flesh shall see.”In giving us the gift of sight, our Creator has provided us with more than another data-gathering tool. He has granted us the capacity to penetrate the profusion of detail that clogs our neurological reality and relate to the quintessence of things—to the essence of a fellow human being, the essence of the world in which we live and, ultimately, the very essence of G-d.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shevat 29, 5740 (February 16, 1980)
Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
. Mechilta on Exodus 19:9; Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 26a.
. Exodus 18:1; Rashi on verse.
. Genesis 45:27; Rashi on verse.
. Genesis 46:30.
. Exodus 14:4.
. Mechilta on Exodus 18:11; Zohar, part II, 69a.
. Cf. Exodus 24:10; Deuteronomy 4:35; Mechilta on Exodus 19:9.
. Isaiah 40:5.