Friday, November 9, 2018

Parashat Toledot: Seeing with Smell

Seeing with Smell
Thoughts on Toledot 2018
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As Yaakov approached his father for the blessing of the firstborn, Yisshak sensed that something was wrong. Although his eyesight had diminished in old age, he was skeptical of the son who approached him. The blessing was purposed for Esav, the bekhor, and Yisshak was unsure that he was indeed the son who was now in his room.

“Come close, pray, that I may feel you, my son, whether you are my son Esav or not” (27:21), Yisshak requested. Yaakov did so, but Yisshak was still concerned. He remarked, “The voice is the voice of Yaakov and the hands are the hands of Esav” (21:22). Substituting his sense of sight with hearing and touch had only confused him more. Yisshak ate the food which Yaakov served him, but then resumed his investigation. “Come close, pray, and kiss me, my son” (27:26). Beckoning Yaakov closer, Yisshak now hoped to determine his identity with smell.

And then something clicked. Yisshak exclaimed, “See (re’eh), the smell of my son is like the smell of the field that God has blessed” (21:27). He had somehow bypassed the natural restrictions of sight in a state of blindness! Indeed, Yisshak now saw better with his nose than he had ever seen with his eyes. He had never truly understood the nature of his sons, erring back at the time when he still saw with his eyes – “Yisshak loved Esav…but Rivkah loved Yaakov” (25:28). But in this intense moment of revelation with Yaakov at his bedside, Yisshak finally saw the truth – though not through his eyes. “At this moment, the visual world symbolically returns in a density of assembled moments,” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote, “Isaac is divinely inspired to see without anxiety or rational inhibition.”[1]

Our tendency to an increased perception when dealing with a diminished sense is well-known. At times, losing one sense leads to an increased sensitivity in the others. Martin Milligan, a philosopher who was blind from the age of two wrote that born-blind people with normal hearing don’t just “hear sounds” – they “hear objects.” He described “hearing” silent objects such as lamp-posts and parked cars with their engines off. He sensed their atmosphere-thickening occupation of space and the way they absorb or echo back the sounds of his footsteps.[2] Other times, however, we seem to enhance the features of the very sense that was diminished. Oliver Sacks described the case of Zoltan Torey, whose “mind’s eye” increased after becoming blind. Torey singlehandedly replaced the entire roof guttering of his multi-gabled home on the strength of an accurate and well-focused mental visual imagery. In place of a natural eyesight, his visual imagery had enabled him to think in ways that had not been available before. It allowed him to project himself inside machines and other systems, envisioning solutions, models and designs.[3]

Malcolm Gladwell mentioned a similar phenomenon regarding an experiment performed several years ago with a group of students at Princeton University. Half of the group was first given a standard Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT) – three questions which measure the ability to understand when something is more difficult than it appears. The students averaged 1.9 correct answers out of three. The researchers then printed the same test questions in a font that was harder to read – a 10 percent gray, 10-point italics Myriad Pro font – and administered the test to the second group of students. This time the average score was 2.45. The researchers explained that by making the questions “disfluent” the students were forced to “think more deeply about whatever they came across.” It caused them to use more resources on it, process more deeply and think more carefully about what was going on.[4]

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked:
The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity…We fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.[5]
R. Yohanan hinted at this reality, as well, when he stated: “Since the day the Bet HaMikdash was destroyed, prophecy was taken away from the prophets and given to madmen and young children.”[6] Moshe Koppel remarked that “madmen” are not idiots, but people who have not internalized conventional wisdom and lack self-consciousness. They share these two characteristics with young children. Faced with the large body of information which had emerged in the wake of destruction, people were left contemplating the “leaves” of halakhah instead of its “roots.” R. Yohanan taught that it is only the madmen and children, who don’t internalize the conventional wisdom, who are free of this limitation.[7]

Ironically, Yisshak could only see that Yaakov was the rightful son for his blessing in a state of blindness. “One is unable to notice something because it is always before one’s eyes,” Wittgenstein wrote. When the reality seemed “simple” and “familiar,” Yisshak remained shortsighted. Visually impaired, however, Yisshak’s perceptions were sharpened. Using his smell to see, he could now understand what had lay before him all along – “See, the smell of my son is like the smell of the field that God has blessed.”

Experiencing life at its fullest, delving into the depths of meaning and existence, requires that we, too, “see with our smell.” It demands that we periodically step back from the world as it seems, wipe our eyes clean of the distracting appearances of reality, and then step in to see it again.

[1] Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Conscious (New York, NY, 2009), pg. 255.
[2] Bryan Magee, On Blindness: Letters Between Bryan Magee and Martin Milligan (New York, NY, 1995), pg. 55.
[3] Oliver Sacks, The Mind’s Eye (New York, NY, 2010), pg. 208-9.
[4] Malcolm Gladwell, David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants (New York, NY, 2013), pg. 104-5.
[5] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 129. Cited by Oliver Sacks in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (New York, NY, 1970), pg. 43 and Seeing Voices (New York, NY, 1990), pg. 115.
[6] Bava Batra 12b.
[7] Moshe Koppel, Meta-Halakhah: Logic, Intuition and the Unfolding of Jewish Law (Lanham, MA, 1997), pg. 54-5.