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Shavuot is the time of the Giving of the Torah. The revelation at Sinai was certainly the most momentous event in the history of mankind. God speaks to a multitude of people; a whole assembly experienced prophecy - something that had never happened before, nor which happened again. Plus, no other religion besides Judaism has ever made the audacious claim that a National Revelation did happen. God's personal entrance onto the stage of human history at Sinai was preceded and accompanied by a light-and-sound show of much majesty.
"And all the people saw the thunder and the torches and the shofar sound and the mountain smoking. And when the people saw it, they moved and stood from afar."
Saw the thunder - RASHI: They saw the audible, which cannot be seen under any other circumstances.
QUESTIONING THE MIDRASH
Rashi drew this comment from the midrash Mechilta. When we look there, we find that Rashi has quoted but one opinion of a dispute. The Midrash quotes two opinions: Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael. Rabbi Akiba says, as Rashi wrote, "They saw the audible and they heard the visible." Rabbi Ishmael says "They saw the visible and they heard the audible."
This is a strange dispute, isn't it? What does Rabbi Ishmael mean to tell us when he says, "They saw the visible, and they heard the audible"?
Of course! Every normal person sees the visible; we don't need the unforgettable Sinai experience to "see the visible." What is the deeper meaning of this dispute?
The following interpretation is the from the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Reb Menachem Mendle Schneerson, zt"l.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
Let us first understand the difference between seeing and hearing. Seeing is a clearer sense than hearing. A deaf person who can see has a much better sense of the world than does a blind person who can hear. So sight is much more advantageous than hearing as a means of experiencing the world.
On the other hand, hearing has its own advantage. We can hear ideas, we can think of abstractions that we receive through hearing. In short, vision is an advantage in the physical world while hearing is advantage in the world of the abstract and the spiritual. And this is so because man is essentially a physical being - albeit with spiritual attributes, but basically he is a physical being. So his sense of sight helps him most in his home territory, this world. While his sense of hearing has limited utility in the matters of this world (since it is a more "spiritual" sense) its utility, though limited, is in the world of the abstract, the world of the spirit.
THE MEANING OF THE SINAI EXPERIENCE
Rabbi Akiva said that the Sinai experience took man out of his physical limitations and thrust him (momentarily) into a higher spiritual realm, where he saw what is heard; that is, one had a clarity of understanding (with the clarity of seeing) of the spiritual reality. And he heard what is visible, that is one had an abstract, deeper, understanding of the physical reality. In short, man was raised to higher level of awareness and sanctity at Sinai.
Rabbi Ishmael, on the other hand, was of the opinion that the Sinai experience did not raise man up to different, ethereal reality; rather, its purpose was to bring the Divine down into this world. At Sinai, God came down to meet man. Thus man remained the same - he saw what is visible and heard what is audible. In short, he lived normally in this world.
And that is the purpose of the Giving the Torah at Sinai, that man should learn to bring the Divine into his physical, material, earthly existence.
Rabbi Akiva differed on the purpose of the Revelation at Sinai. He believed its purpose was to raise man up to higher, less earthly, experience - one where he could 'See the sounds (ideas) and hear the sights.' Rabbi Akiva we should recall was a Ba'al Teshuva, a returnee to Torah Judaism. His whole life was dedicated to reaching higher realm and even being privileged to give up his earthly life for the love of God.
Rabbi Ishamael, no less a lover of God, was a High Priest, whose task it was to teach people how to bring the holy down into their everyday lives.
The apparently trivial dispute touched on by Rashi's comment, in fact, touches on the heart of the meaning of the service of God. Two opinions, two worldviews. Each right for the right person.