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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Kol Nidre - 2009/5770

Hearing is Believing

So-a story.  Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, way back when I was in high school in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, I had to take Chemistry.  Not thrilled at the prospect, I still vividly remember the first experiment we had to undertake in class.  Entitled, not surprisingly, the black box experiment, we were each given a sealed shoebox containing something and, based on our observations over several days, we were supposed to offer hypotheses as to the contents of the box.  Through the box, we could feel the contents, weigh the contents, hear the contents, perhaps even smell the contents, maybe even shake the contents to see if it or they would change form.  The teacher imposed just one rule-we could not do the obvious.  For how simple it would have been to have taken off the seal and open the box.  Then I could have seen the contents inside with my very own eyes.

Back in high school I simply could not understand why Mr. Wheeler, my Chemistry teacher, made such an obvious thing so difficult.  Seeing is believing.  That clear expression has been part of our vocabulary since 1639.  And it has taken a variety of forms.  For example, to indicate that one understands something, one says, “I see what you mean.”  In other words, to believe something, to fully understand something, was to see it.

Similarly, consider how much weight we put on eyewitness testimony.  In court, eyewitness testimony regarding such things as identification of perpetrators, types of vehicles driven, timelines of events, descriptions of details is usually considered the most reliable type of testimony.  Seeing is believing.  For further proof, take the simple game of “Simon says.”  Simon may say to do something-or Simon may not say anything-but the visual cue almost always outweighs the verbal one.

In fact, our reliance upon our eyes goes all the way back to the Greeks.  In the Greek world, the dominant sense was sight; one found beauty in the form of the human body and in nature.    Even such words as idea and theory emanate from the notion of sight-idea from the Greek meaning “to see” and theory from the Greek meaning “to observe.”  Perhaps the earliest saying regarding sight and eyewitness testimony can be traced back to the Greek historian Herodotus (Hee-rod-i-tus) who, in the 5th century BCE, said, “Men trust their ears less than their eyes.”

But could the Greeks have had it wrong?  We already know enough about eyewitness testimony that should trouble us.  DNA testing alone has shown how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be.  We should be troubled by how many times eyewitness testimony has falsely convicted innocent people.  Since so many of these stories exist, let me just take these words from Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, a young college student when she was raped back in 1984:

“During my ordeal, I studied every single detail on the rapist’s face. I looked at his hairline. I looked for scars, for tattoos, for anything that would help me identify him. When and if I survived the attack, I was going to make sure that he was put in prison.

When I went to the police department later that day, I worked on a composite sketch to the very best of my ability. Several days later, looking at a series of police photos, I identified my attacker. I knew this was the man.

I picked the same man in a lineup. Again, I was sure. When the case went to trial in 1986, I stood on the stand, put my hand on the Bible and swore to tell the truth. Based on my testimony, Ronald Junior Cotton was sentenced to prison for life.

In 1987, the case was retried because an appellate court had overturned [the] conviction. During a pretrial hearing, I learned that another man had supposedly claimed to be my attacker and was bragging about it in the same prison wing where Ronald Cotton was being held. This man, Bobby Poole, was brought into court, and I was asked, “Ms. Thompson, have you ever seen this man?” “I have never seen him in my life,” I answered.

Ronald Cotton was sentenced again to two life sentences.  In 1995, I was asked to provide a blood sample so that DNA tests could be run on evidence from the rape. I agreed, because I knew that Ronald Cotton had raped me and DNA was going to confirm that.  I will never forget the day I learned about the DNA results. I was standing in my kitchen when the detective and the district attorney visited. “Ronald Cotton didn’t rape you,” they told me. “It was Bobby Poole.”

The man I was so sure I had never seen in my life was the man who raped me.  And the man I had identified so emphatically on so many occasions was absolutely innocent.” (Houston Chronicle-June 20, 2000)

Jennifer was later to seek out Ronald Cotton to gain his forgiveness.  Together they have written a book entitled Picking Cotton.  That would be a different sermon for another Yom Kippur.

Yet beyond all the growing scientific evidence, Could the Greeks have had it wrong?  Was Herodotus mistaken in trusting his eyes over his ears?  Other scientific evidence has begun to show us just how much we depend not upon what we see, but upon what we hear.  Why is it that, in a variety of studies, other mammals seem entirely unaffected by music?  In the words of Natalie Angier in a fascinating article in The New York Times, “while monkeys showed some signs of preferring slow-tempo music to livelier tunes, their favorite song of all was the sound of one hand clapping.”  And what did Angier title her article?  “When an Earwitness Decides the Case.”  could the Greeks have had it wrong, at least for us as Jews?  For example, if seeing were believing, we would have never spent forty years in the wilderness.  Remember, Moses sent out twelve men, one from each of the tribes, to scout out the Promised Land.  Upon their return, all twelve agreed that the land was magnificent, a land flowing with milk and honey.  Yet only two of them–Joshua and Caleb–recommended they enter the land immediately for they had nothing to fear.  The majority, however, were filled with fear and swayed the people from entering the land.  Thus, only Joshua and Caleb got to enter, forty years later.  Seeing was not believing.

On a far more profound level, ponder those six words we consider the watchword of our faith, our creedal affirmation.  Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad.  The only verb is in the imperative-and the command for us, for Israel, is “Hear-Hear, O Israel, The Eternal our God, the Eternal is One.”  Note that we do not proclaim “Re’eh Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad-See, See, O Israel, The Eternal our God, the Eternal is One.”    Again, it is all about hearing.

And how are we to respond?  What do we say?  Our response is not “na’aseh v’nireh-we will do and we will see.”  Rather, we respond, “Na’aseh v’nishma-we will do and we will hear.”  It is in the doing, the doing of what the Eternal commands of us, that we will hear, that we will understand.  In other words, we say to God, “We hear what you mean.”

Why did God reach out to us through our ears and not our eyes?  God knows how hard it is for us to listen, especially for us to listen well.  It is true that we can close our eyes-but surely have no earlids.  So we become preoccupied and distracted by so much noise that we cannot really hear.  Or we become impatient if something cannot be said in six words or in 140 characters.  Or we try to listen to many voices in many forms all at once-on television and on our Blackberries and on our I-pods.  And some of us, who are deaf or hearing impaired, have to listen differently, through our hands and our feet, to the waves sound makes as it travels to and through us.

Still, unlike the Greeks, for us, hearing is believing.  Perhaps the Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas said it best in his work The Phenomenon of Life as he talked about sight as the ideal distance-sense.  “The best view is by no means the closest view…we consciously stand back and create distance in order to look at the world, at objects as parts of the world.”  In other words, to see something better, we have to step back, we have to distance ourselves.  We uninvolve ourselves and objectify what we see.  But sound, to be heard better, usually requires coming in closer.  In fact, while sight may be beyond us, sound is deep within us.  As Rabbi Schaalman pointed out on Rosh Hashanah, we can even hear our own hearts beating, perhaps as often as 60 times a minute.

At the revelation at Sinai, there was thunder, there was lightning, all of the mountain trembled.  But what did God reveal to us?  We surely could not see God and live.  So we heard God.  But what did we hear?  The entire Torah?  Aseret ha-Dibrot-the Ten Utterances, the Ten Commandments?  Just the first commandment?  Or just that first letter, the letter aleph-the sound we make as we prepare to speak?  Write Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Carol Ochs, “what the people heard was the billowing of their lungs.  So when we take cognizance of our breathing and listen only to it, we are listening for the voice of Sinai again.”  And how do we speak our four-letter name for God, the tetragrammaton.  Yud-heh-vah-heh-which we pronounce Adonai in prayer but which, if you pronounced the letters themselves, would get you the following-(breath in and out)–the sound of breathing itself.  God can be that close to us.

But our ears tell us that it is about an ongoing relationship-and we have grown distant.  We have missed the mark, we have turned away, we have even allowed other voices to drown out Yours, O God.  But in a moment, trembling, we take words and cry out to You, “Shema koleinu, Adonai Eloheinu, Hear our voice, O Eternal our God,  hus v’rhem aleinu, v’kabel b’rahamim uvratzon et tefilateinu;  have compassion upon us and with that compassion, accept our prayer.”

O God, shema koleinu.  Now hear us.  Hearing is believing.  Believe in us.  Remember, we are your earwitnesses in this world.

Sat, February 24 2024 15 Adar I 5784