Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, an 18th Century Chassidic sage, is famous for his advocacy of Jewish people. Once, upon observing a group of Jews sinning, he raised his eyes heavenward and argued, “Master of the universe, You have placed spiritual truths into books for them to learn about, while You have placed temptation before their very eyes; Try the reverse: place temptation into books and spiritual truths before their eyes, then rest assured, their behavior will be impeccable!”
Indeed, imagine a world where promiscuity is learnt about in the abstract and only textual knowledge exists of tasty food, while heaven, angels, and the divine force constantly re-creating the world are visible to the naked eye. Surely in such a world we would naturally gravitate toward spirituality, while the very notion of sin would relegate to myth.
To be sure, why would this be the case? The difference between seeing an object and hearing about it is enormous. The seen object appears vivid, close, and real, while one heard about offers only a vague, distant, and abstract impression. For example, hearing a description of Venice, even a highly elaborate and precise one, is incomparably inferior to actually seeing its canals and historical buildings with one’s own eyes. In the former case one’s conception of the city remains vague and doubtful; in the latter, it is vivid and definite. Since we chiefly see the physical world and only hear about the spiritual, the physical seems more real than the spiritual. Consequently, we are heavily drawn toward the physical. If however, the spiritual became visible and the physical was merely heard about, we would naturally gravitate toward the spiritual. The Jews experienced such a sensory reversal at Mt Sinai where “they heard what is normally seen and saw what is normally heard.”
Unfortunately, we do not presently live in such a reality. In our world the physical is seen and the spiritual is heard about. Therefore, if we want to transcend the material realm and enter the spiritual, we must learn to listen.
The traditional daily affirmation of the unity of existence, the ‘Shema Yisrael’ underscores this principle. When reading the Shema affirmation, we cover our eyes with the right hand and state, “Hear O’ Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is one”. We cover our eyes because the world we see appears to contradict the affirmation. It is filled with innumerable, disparate things, and seems to exist independently from G-d. To perceive the underlying unity, we must close our eyes and, as the affirmation begins, hear the truth. By listening we come to experience the unity.
In highlighting the importance of listening, the Midrash distinguishes the manner in which G-d heals the spirit from the way a physician heals the body:
“When a person falls and injures his body a physician treats each injured limb separately; bandaging one and applying ointment to another. However, when a person falls spiritually and ‘damages’ his limbs – I.e. by using his eyes to gaze at inappropriate things, his hands to steal, or his legs to walk to sin - G-d heals differently: He restores his entire spirit simultaneously through the Torah- if only he opens his ears to listen.
If a person is receptive to the voice of G-d within the Torah, then all of his limbs are healed and restored to purity. But if his ears are closed, what hope does he have of repair? The ears are the gates to spiritual healing.