Look around the room. What do you see? You see walls, a floor, a ceiling. You see furniture: A table, a desk, a chair. If you go outdoors, you see the sky, flowers, trees. But what lies under the surface of what you see? What purpose do these things serve? What is the meaning behind them? To answer these questions, “seeing” is not enough. You need to go deeper and develop other ways of perceiving. This might involve delving into books that explain these phenomena, or listening to words of wisdom from others.
The understanding you get through reading or listening to a lecture is not the same as what you gain through direct experience. It’s only something you know about, not something you’ve experienced yourself. But sometimes, you get a flash of insight that opens up a new world, and you finally “see” for yourself what was lying under the surface all along.
In describing the phenomena when the Jewish people received the Torah, the verse says: “And the people saw the thunder” (Yitro, 20:15) Rabbi Akiva interprets this verse to mean that “they saw what is usually heard, and they heard what is usually seen.”
What is the meaning of this statement? We know that thunder and lighting are actually the same phenomenon, with thunder being the auditory counterpart and lightning the visual. What happened at Mount Sinai that caused the people to experience seeing as hearing, and vice versa?
Usually, the physical world is what we see, while the spiritual world is remote, something we read about in books or hear from others, not part of our direct experience. G-d is an abstract concept, not a concrete reality.
At Mount Sinai, G-d revealed Himself to the Jewish People. When G-d said, “I am the L-rd your G-d”, the people did not just take that on faith. They saw G-d directly. That’s what “seeing what is heard” means – they saw something that until then they had only heard about.
At the same time, the physical world receded into the background. They knew it existed, but suddenly their physical needs and senses weren’t paramount. The people were lifted to a higher level of reality, where spirituality was concrete, and physicality was abstract.
After this revelation, their senses went back to the way they were before. Once again they saw the physical world, and the spiritual world was shadowed. But the initial experience gave them the impetus they needed to return to the physical world and work with it, to make it reflect G-dliness.
Our task in the world is to take the physical world and elevate and refine it, so that it reflects its Creator. It’s an uphill struggle, as we often have to work against the seeming evidence of our own eyes. Our energies flag, our faith is challenged. But deep inside, we still have the revelation of Mount Sinai. At one time, we did see the G-dliness, and it was real to us then. This gives us the courage and ability to continue our work of refining the world, until G-d will ultimately reveal Himself completely once again, with the true and ultimate Redemption.
(Based on an address of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Likutei Sichos Vol. VI, p. 119)