The internet was set ablaze this week with the Laurel/Yanny phenomenon. If you’re not familiar, an audio recording was posted where people swore they heard the word “Laurel” while others insisted the voice said “Yanny.” Similar to the black/blue vs white/gold dress controversy of a couple of years ago. These phenomenon pose disturbing questions about reality and our abilities to agree on facts and events. If our own senses cannot be trusted, what does that mean for our claim to discern reality?
This notion of double perception stuck with me as I was learning about the upcoming holiday of Shavuos. Particularly when I came across a line from King David’s Psalms.
One thing God has spoken, two things indeed I learnt…
אַחַ֚ת דִּבֶּ֬ר אֱלֹהִ֗ים שְׁתַּֽיִם־ז֥וּ שָׁמָ֑עְתִּי כִּ֥י עֹ֜֗ז לֵֽאלֹהִֽים (Tehillim 62:12)
Interesting, given the Laurel/Yanny controversy of the week, that the verse speaks about a single utterance but having two takeaways. Rashi comments that this line refers to the first two of the 10 Commandments, another thing of focus this week.
Shavuos, which we will celebrate Saturday night, is the culmination of a journey that starts with Pesach, continues as we count the 49 days of the Omer, through Pesach Sheini and Lag B’Omer ending with the giving of the 10 Commandments. The period parallels the Jews’ journey out of Egypt, through the Split Sea, until they reach Sinai and hear God speak. But when the Jews got to Sinai and heard God, what did they hear? The 10 Commandments? Just two Commandments? The whole Torah?
God spoke all these words, saying…
וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֔ים אֵ֛ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה לֵאמֹֽר (Shemos 20:1)
In the Torah, the section of God speaking the Ten Commandments begins with the quoted verse. But why does the Torah say “all these words,” then begin to list said words (as the chapter continues on enumerating the commandments)? Isn’t that a bit redundant? From here we get a big discussion on what “all these words” mean.
Many are of the opinion (including Rambam) that God, Himself spoke the first two commandments. But the experience was so profound, so demonstrative, so percussive that the whole nation died, then was resurrected. Upon recovering from the experience, the Jews pretty much said, “Okay, we’re good. Moses you go get the rest and we’ll hear it from you.”
Rashi and Ramban are of the opinion that when God spoke, in a single utterance He gave over all 10 Commandments (and everyone died and came back). But the Jews couldn’t comprehend it, so God started to repeat them word by word. And after getting through the first two, the Jews had had enough of the traumatic experience that they insisted Moses finish the rest.
Lastly, the Gur Aryeh explains that in the single utterance, the Jews didn’t just get the 10 Commandments but the entire Torah as a whole inseparable unit. In that instant, the Jews had a view of the entire puzzle, an assembled Lego set opposed to just the pieces. So that they would have an understanding that the mitzvahs all work together as one.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
The Mechilta has an explanation that makes the most sense for me. When Hashem said the first two Commandments, he said them at the same time (which is what the Psalm, 2 from 1, is directly referring to). From that single utterance we learned, not only both Commandments, but from a full, true, and deep understanding of the first two, that they came to understand the whole of Torah. So what is so essential about the first two Commandments? Let’s look.
- “I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
- You shall not have the gods of others before Me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, nor any manner of likeness of anything that is in heaven above, that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them. For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children of the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me; and showing mercy unto the thousandth generation of them that love Me and keep My commandments.
What we have here is an example of the two types of mitzvahs. Aseh or positive (Thou shalt do…) and Lo Sa’aseh or prohibitive (Thou shalt not do…). In a previous post, I talked about that “I am the Lord, your God” is about making God real. But shouldn’t that be enough? If we’re real with recognizing, God why do we need a 2nd Commandment to prohibit worshiping another?
The Torah is teaching us that there is a fundamental nature to understand about growth and relationships. If we really want to maximize those, we need to internalize that there are things that strengthen a connection and there are things that detract from it. And most people already understand that. What the single utterance is telling us is that’s really not two separate mitzvahs or ways to embolden the relationship, but an act that is one in the same.
The New York Times took the Laurel/Yanny recording and made a program that allows you to adjust the frequency. Using a slider, you can toggle the recording until you can hear it one way or the other. But what’s fascinating is that if you find just the right frequency (it’s different per person) you can hear both at the same time. It’s a little freaky. But it’s at that moment you realize it’s not really either name, but your brain’s way of interpreting this set of auditory data.
The data is empirical, our experience of it is perceptional. From that, we can maybe understand that a mitzvah aseh and a mitzvah lo sa’seh aren’t really two separate mitzvahs, but two inseparable ways of connecting with one thing we can’t fully perceive in its empirical form. And so when it comes to making that connection with Hashem, we can either understand there’s God and there’s nothing else… or there’s something else in the forefront and we lose that connection with God. And that’s what the whole of Torah is about. Hashem didn’t need to say anything more. So He didn’t.