The last words of the Ten Commandments resound from Sinai and the narrative of revelation continues: All the people saw the thunder and the lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance (Exodus 20:15). Modern translators, wanting to align the senses, retreat from the awkward verb by saying: All of the people perceived the thunder and the lightning.
One ancient version of the sacred text (the Samaritan Torah) sorts out perception by saying: All of the people heard the thunder and saw the lightning.
Rabbi Ishmael, a sage of the 2nd century, addressed this verse’s confusion of the senses: They could see that which was visible and hear that which was audible. For Rabbi Ishmael, the Torah speaks in human language; reason draws the line between the literal and figurative. One can only see that which is see-able.
His colleague, Rabbi Akiba, disagreed. Rabbi Akiba said: They could both see and hear that which was visible. When God spoke at Sinai, Akiba insisted, senses overflowed their banks; sight and sound inseparable.
The Israeli poet, Rivka Miriam, expanded Rabbi Akiba’s view to include all of the senses:
A semblance of mountain returned to Sinai
even as the visions remained in Moses’ ears, and in his eyes the shofar and thunder sounded still
and the sixty myriad of their faces were still buried, trembling against his chest
touch still in their nostrils, taste still in their hands
and then, like opening a sack or a purse, the Torah loosened her knots before them
with her letters slowly blotting confusion from their expression, as with a kerchief.
As the divine words fade, the people are fearful and confused in the presence of a revelation too deep and high for individual senses to hold; vision resounds, smell and taste elaborate touch. The mountain had expanded to become a moment. Only now, as the poem opens, does the mountain begin to regain its former state. As each sense reclaims its own way of knowing, an unexplainable wholeness becomes only the sum of its many parts.
Torah takes her place precisely here, where the more and the mundane meet, where the meta and the physical join. Precisely now she opens her sack, her purse. With her letters, she blots away confusion and becomes the text that mediates between the mountain left behind and the moment to be met.