Sinai’s Sounds and Lights: Suprasensory Senses
Do our senses help or impede our ability to experience reality?
Many schools of mysticism insist that to enter the sublime we need to shut down, or at least blunt, our senses. When you are overstimulated by the things you see, hear, taste, touch and smell, you become distracted from your inner voice. By closing your eyes (as we do when we recite the Shema) and quieting down the other senses, you can meditate and concentrate on the soul within yourself and others.
Witness how our level of focus is diminished when we are distracted by our ringing cell phones and buzzing blackberries. Just the other day, I was sitting in a meeting and could not believe how people throughout were busy peeking at their various gadgets. Besides the disrespect, how in heaven could anybody truly apply the necessary attention to the issues at hand? How would we feel if a surgeon operating on our loved one was e-mailing his dinners plans while holding a scalpel in his other hand?! (Obviously, a pedestrian office meeting cannot be compared to surgery, but the point is still the same).
Thus, the case is made that in order to allow our souls to speak we need to subdue our senses. We need to escape the “rush hour” and quiet down our lives. Silence and serenity create a conducive environment for the soulful experience.
Some go a step further and assert that our senses actually distort true reality – the inner truth within. Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch are superficial tools that can only relate to and access superficial, external experiences. Intimacy requires intimate tools. Sublime experiences require sublime tools.
The naked eye, or even a microscope, cannot see sub-atomic particles, nor can it see love or pain. Basically, the level of our experience is in direct proportion to the tools we use.
In The Philosophy of Physical Science Sir Arthur Eddington offers an excellent analogy to explain phenomenon beyond the scope of our conventional measuring instruments:
“Let us suppose that an ichthyologist is exploring the life of the ocean. He casts a net into the water and brings up a fishy assortment. Surveying his catch, he proceeds in the usual manner of a scientist to systematize what it reveals. He arrives at” a generalization: “No sea-creature is less than two inches long.” This is “true of his catch, and he assumes tentatively that… [it] will remain true however often he repeats it.
”In applying this analogy, the catch stands for the body of knowledge which constitutes physical science, and the net for the sensory and intellectual equipment which we use in obtaining it. The casting of the net corresponds to observation; for knowledge which has not been or could not be obtained by observation is not admitted into physical science.
“An onlooker may object that the first generalization is wrong. “There are plenty of sea-creatures under two inches long, only your net is not adapted to catch them.” The ichthyologist dismisses this objection contemptuously. “Anything uncatchable by my net is ipso facto outside the scope of ichthyological knowledge.” In short, “what my net can’t catch isn’t fish.” Or – to translate the analogy – “If you are not simply guessing, you are claiming a knowledge of the physical universe discovered in some other way than by the methods of physical science, and admittedly unverifiable by such methods. You are a metaphysician. Bah!”
If our sensory tools are limited in perceiving the inner nature of the physical universe – from quantum mechanics to the human unconscious, from intangible subatomic particles to microscopic DNA and supra-nano cellular structures – how much more so is their inability to experience the metaphysical.
The mystics explain that to reach deeper states of consciousness we need to learn to get beyond our limited senses – which process experiences in linear fashion – and even beyond our natural logic. Indeed, some mystical systems use paradoxes and counterintuitive exercises (“what is the sound of one hand clapping?”) to access inner dimensions that transcend the limited nature of outer, external consciousness.
The Divine is experienced not through the senses but in silence. G-d was not in the wind, earthquake, or fire that Elijah saw on Mt. Horeb, but in the still, subtle voice (Kings 1 19:11-12).
Parallels have been drawn between the mystical experience and the experience of the quantum state in modern physics, where one also needs to use a new set of sublime tools, altogether different and even antithetical to the intuitive tools of our ordinary language which takes its images from our conventional senses and logical mechanisms.
All this establishes a very strong case against the senses helping us reach the inner world of spirituality: The senses are simply too inadequate and limited. Their obsession with the tangible actually creates an illusion that distracts us. It distorts the true nature of matter (on the microscopic level) and spirit, thus hampering our ability to achieve a higher state of consciousness.
But there is another side to the story.
These same senses very often allow us to experience the sublime. To look at a sight of beauty, to hear the exquisite sound of music, to smell the subtle fragrance of perfume, to taste the intricacies of a rich wine, to touch the soft skin of your beloved – all open us up to the sublime world we call sensuality, a very close sister to spirituality.
Certain sensual stimuli can evoke transcendental feelings and passions, accessing intimate levels of your emotions and soul.
So which one is it: Do our senses support or weaken our spiritual experiences?
This week’s Torah portion provides us with a revolutionary answer:
Here is the Bible’s description of the most momentous event in history – the revelation at Sinai:
“The third day arrived. There was thunder and lightning in the morning, with a heavy cloud on the mountain, and an extremely loud blast of a ram’s horn. The people in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp toward the Divine Presence. They stood transfixed at the foot of the mountain.
“Mount Sinai was all in smoke because of the Presence that had come down on it. G-d was in the fire, and its smoke went up like the smoke of a lime kiln. The entire mountain trembled violently. There was the sound of a ram’s horn, increasing in volume to a great degree. Moses spoke, and G-d replied with a Voice” (Exodus 19:16-19).
Sinai was both a profoundly mystical experience and simultaneously an intense sensual experience – a multi-sensory event that stimulated all the human senses: Thunder and lightning, the escalating shofar blast, smoke and trembling.
.Indeed, the people actually had an overstimulated sensory experience – a state of synesthesia:
“All the people saw the sounds, the flames, the blast of the ram’s horn, and the mountain smoking. The people trembled when they saw it, keeping their distance” (20:15). “They saw what is ordinarily heard, and they heard what is ordinarily seen” (Mechilta on the verse).
The ultimate Divine experience is not to escape our sensory earth and travel to heaven – indeed, the people were told to remain below and “be careful not to climb the mountain” (19:12; 21; 23-24) – but to integrate the suprasensory into the sensory.
The reason for this is fundamental: The cardinal principle of faith is Divine unity (G-d is One), which means that there is only one seamless reality that permeates all of existence – the innermost recesses of the soul as well as the outermost layers of surface existence – in heaven above and on the earth beneath (Deuteronomy 4:39). Thus, to state that truth can be experienced exclusively by transcending or ignoring our senses, questions the Divine unity connecting all dimensions of experience.
Reality is reality; it is real through and through, from the depths to the shallows. If reality can be experienced only by denying the sensory world, the Divine unity is fundamentally compromised, by stating that the Divine truth cannot be felt in our senses and superficial experiences.
Initially, left to our own faculties, our senses alone can distract us from our inner lives. The sensory stimulation of everyday life – not to mention our being inundated in every which way by marketers hawking their merchandise – is a constant reminder of the formidable forces consuming our lives which we must contend with. We therefore need moments of silence and spaces of solitude to access our soul’s inner journey. Too many extracurricular noises will drown out our ability to hear the subtle hum within.
Indeed, due to the fireworks at Sinai (the greatest “light and sound show” ever displayed), the people became overconfident and ended up worshiping the Golden Calf. Sometimes when you experience the Divine on your own terms – in ways that your sensory tools can relate to – you can become arrogant and feel invulnerable, and then fall from your high perch. Thus, the Second Tablets were given to Moses in the silence and awe of Yom Kippur.
But within sensual stimuli lie reminders – sparks – of Divine glory. Via our sensory experiences we can access profound heights of spirit, albeit with the limits that tangible experience imposes on the undefined passion of true intimacy.
The ultimate goal is to bridge both “worlds” – to express the unexpressable: To see the unseeable, hear the unhearable, smell the unsmellable, taste the untastable and touch the untouchable.
Sinai fused heaven and earth – the higher and the lower. As the Midrash explains: At Sinai “that which was above could now descend below, that which was below could now ascend above” – it fused matter and spirit, the suprasensory and the sensory, the invisible became visible, and the visible became invisible.
Sinai gave us the power to fuse our senses with that which is beyond all senses. To experience transcendence while we are immersed in the minutia of our sights and sounds.
How do we achieve this synthesis in our own lives? By spiritualizing our material investments and sublimating our sensory experiences. We have to see our external lives as a means, a stepping stone to achieve a higher sense of awareness and growth.
In every life experience we have two choices: To indulge in the experience and move on. Or top see it as a tool, a vehicle for an act of virtue or a deeper insight.
When we see a beautiful sight, for instance, we can either just take it in, be stimulated and there it ends. Or we can learn a lesson from the beauty that can help us understand the symmetry of life, the grand Divine design and our responsibility to bring beauty and balance into our lives and surroundings. The same with our other senses – sound, taste, touch and smell: They are not merely instruments for our entertainment and delight, but metaphors and vehicles to take us on an inner journey – where our senses meet that which is beyond the senses.
Each of the 613 mitzvoth tackles another aspect of our material and sensory lives (1), with the objective of refining each respective segment of our material world.
Ultimately, the simple mitzvah – an act of transforming the physical into fuel for virtue – creates the ultimate fireworks: The fusion of the suprasensory and the sensory.
Consider: The powerful sights and sounds of Sinai 3319 years ago changed the world forever.
We now have the ability to bridge the most tangible senses with the most intangible sublime.
Quite a gift.
How you and I act today affects us all. Now and forever.
Quite a responsibility.
(1) Most mitzvoth are performed with one or more of the five senses. There are certain mitzvoth that relate specifically to one of the senses. For example – sight: looking at tzitzit. Sound: shofar. Taste: eating a sacred meal. Touch: semicha, grasping the etrog and the other three species. Smell: spices, incense.
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