What does the Torah want to tell us by describing the experience at Mount Sinai as "seeing" rather than as "hearing"?
We are told that one of the miracles at Mount Sinai was the fact that the people "saw" sounds, rather than merely hearing them.
What does this expression mean? What does the Torah want to tell us by describing the experience at Sinai as "seeing" rather than as "hearing"?
The Scriptures mystifying feature of the revelation at Sinai, as described in the Scriptures, is summed up in the verse: "And all the nation saw the voices and the torches and the voice of the horn." (Exodus 20:14)
This is only one aspect of the supernatural events that took place with the giving of the Torah. We come not to question it, but to learn from the details which the Torah recorded from the ages.
Why was it important to "see" the voices? And why did the Torah deem it important to record this fact and tell us about it? Obviously, it must have added something important, or the Torah would not have recorded it.
Man takes in information about his environment from two main sources: his eyes, and his ears. We learn about our physical surroundings by looking at them; we hear about non-physical phenomena such as ideas and values, using our ears. "Seeing is believing", the saying goes. Physical reality is seen; spiritual values are spoken about.
Seeing is a more physical experience than is hearing. When we hear about a house or a scene or a person, we must use our imagination to conjure up an appropriate image of the subject. Not so when we are shown a photograph or the actual object itself.
We may hear a full description of a rare flower, and know its color, size, and form, but all this is abstract knowledge compared to seeing a photograph of the plant itself.
Vision works just the other way around. One sees an image, but it has no spiritual meaning unless man chooses to attribute some abstract significance to it. It can become a symbol for a concept only if man so wishes.
No matter how skilled a person may be at conjuring up an image on the basis of information he hears about a rose, actually seeing it will always give him a more authentic experience of the flower itself. Someone who has never seen a rose, but only heard all about it – its size, form, colors, shape, and texture – will always be less well informed than those who actually hold a rose in their hand and behold its beauty firsthand.
In short, hearing of something is an indirect experience; actually seeing the object is a direct, personal experience.
The appearance of the Creator on Mount Sinai to give us the Torah was a purely spiritual event. It was only natural that the human eye, in its limitations, not to be able to perceive the events of the Giving of the Torah. However, the ear was able to take in what was happening, and to transmit it to the heart and the head. However, if the experience had concluded with this, the Giving of the Torah would be lacking in one aspect. Man has not only a spirit, but also a physical aspect, which would not have experienced the Revelation at Sinai directly, only vicariously, through what it heard. Its picture of Torah and Sinai would have been obscure and subject to personal interpretation. To a certain degree, it would have been an artificial reconstruction based on what the ear had heard and transmitted to the brain.
G-d intended the revelation at Sinai to involve all of man's being, physically and spiritually. The events at Sinai, as abstract as they might be, were intended for man's physical being as well. Therefore, it was essential that he not only hear the sound, but also absorb them with all the impact usually associated only with seeing, as well.
Therefore, the Jewish People were shown the voices. They experienced the spiritual revelations at Sinai with the same intensity that we see the objects of this physical world. In this way, the revelation at Sinai was complete in all aspects.