Just before Mattan Torah, all of the Jewish people gathered around Mount Sinai. The mountain was surrounded by fire, and a heavenly cloud settled on top. The entire world came to a halt as the sound of the shofar was heard; thunder roared and lightning flashed in the background.
In the Talmud and in the Midrash, our Sages tell us more about what happened then. Rabbi Akiva tells us that the Jewish people could actually "see the thunder and hear the lightning."
Why does Rabbi Akiva tell us this?
Many other miracles took place at that time: All the birds stopped chirping precisely at the moment the Torah was given, flowers and fruit-bearing trees sprouted forth from the desert mountain, and most important - the Jewish people actually heard HaShem tell them the Ten Commandments. Is Rabbi Akiva just adding another miracle?
No. Rabbi Akiva is teaching us something very important. He is teaching us is how a Jew should look at the Torah and the world around him.
We usually see physical things, but not ideas or thoughts. Yet our ears can listen to ideas - even deep and holy thoughts about HaShem.
The Torah guides a Jew to gaze deeper into the things which appear before his eyes and to look for the things which his ears have heard about. HaShem hides His holiness in the things around us. Even though we cannot see it, it is still there. It is our job to look deeper, to find that holiness, and to reveal it. Every mitzvah which we perform helps us reveal that hidden holiness.
For example, a delicious red apple. The Korean grocer says, "Its color is so red, its shape is perfect and it tastes delicious!" He sees the apple as a nice, tasty fruit. But a Jew who makes a berachah on the apple is looking at more than just a fruit. He sees the blessing of HaShem, and thanks Him for making the fruit grow.
This is what Rabbi Akiva meant when he said that the Jews could see what is heard - that the Torah makes it possible for us to look deeper and see the holiness in the world around us.
In his own life, Rabbi Akiva set an example of how to look deeper than what our eyes can see. He once accompanied a group of Sages who passed the site of the Beis HaMikdash after it was destroyed. Suddenly, a fox darted out from the rubble. Spotting the fox, the sages burst out in tears.
"How terrible! Look what has happened to our holy place!" they cried.
But Rabbi Akiva did not cry; instead the Sages saw him smiling. "How can you possibly rejoice while seeing this destruction?" they asked him in wonder.
"I am happy because I am looking beyond what my eyes see," replied Rabbi Akiva. "Just as HaShem carried out His warnings to destroy the city, He will also fulfill His promise to rebuild the Beis HaMikdash. The destroyed Beis HaMikdash helps me see the rebuilt city of Yerushalayim and hear the sounds of geulah approaching."
(Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. VI, Parshas Yisro)