What is more powerful: A strong touch or a soft one? A loud thud or a gentle song? A forceful shove or a delicate prod?
Is love experienced more though aggression or through tenderness?
Touch. Music. Beauty. Love. Every experience that stirs the heart and soul is actually a bridge between the sensory and the supra-sensory: A loving look, a harmonious melody, wine on the palate, a fragrant flower, a mother’s touch – they all stimulate a sense. But just. Like a sliding skate on ice or a strumming string on a fiddle, the stimulated sense opens a door to a place that is far beyond any tangible and describable experience. The more subtle, the more powerful.
In one word: Sensuality – where the senses meet that which is beyond the senses. A loving caress is indeed tangible; yet, simultaneously intangible. A touch that just glances the surface, but ignites an eruption of feelings.
Yet, sensuality has a complex history. For all its allure, it is not always associated with purity and innocence. Some even see it as antithetical to the spiritual. In fact, modern dictionaries translate “sensual” as “lacking in moral or spiritual interests; worldly,” “relating to or consisting in the gratification of the senses or the indulgence of appetite.”
Let us revisit the roots of sensuality.
Why did the Sinai experience, in this week’s Torah portion, have to be so dramatic and pronounced? “Mount Sinai was all in smoke because of the Presence that had come down on it. G-d was in the fire, and its smoke went up like the smoke of a lime kiln. The entire mountain trembled violently. There was the sound of a ram's horn, increasing in volume to a great degree. Moses spoke, and G-d replied with a Voice” (Exodus 19:16-19).
It would seem that the profound spiritual event that was Sinai would be intimate and resonant, without needing to rely on a spectacular display of fireworks.
Indeed, the Midrash explains that the first tablets were broken due to the fact that they were accompanied with high-level fanfare. Thus the second tablets were given on Yom Kippur in silence. “Nothing is more beautiful,” the Midrash concludes, “than modesty.”
Yet, the purpose of Sinai was to permeate the sensory universe, and infuse our tangible existence with the Divine. Sinai was both a profoundly mystical experience and simultaneously an intense sensual experience – a multi-sensory event that stimulated all the human senses: thunder and lightning, the escalating shofar blast, smoke and trembling. While the senses were all engaged at Sinai, they also felt an intense awe of an experience beyond anything physical. Indeed, the people actually achieved a state of synesthesia: “All the people saw the sounds – they saw what is ordinarily heard, and they heard what is ordinarily seen” (20:15 and Mechilta on the verse). With all the dramatic sounds and sights – Sinai opened doors beyond the perceived senses, actually fusing them into one.
True and healthy sensuality was born.
How, then, did sensuality acquire its lewd reputation? Where did the pure and subtle nature of sensuality go awry?
Ahh, the answer to this question lies in the very nature of the sensory universe and how it clutches us in its hold. On our own, we tend to gravitate to the easier option of surface, superficial experiences. Without exerted effort sensory stimuli can seduce us to the point of completely overwhelming our beings. Witness the hypnotic power of television and film; the manipulative mechanics of packaging; how images, sounds, tastes, smells and touches are used to motivate and sell us products and services. If these senses carry superficial messages, their potent power can be used against us – assaulting our psyches, violating our inner space and distorting our perception of reality. Our senses can even become instruments of self destruction, leading to escapism, desensitization and addiction as our sensory immune system is lowered due to hyper-stimulation.
On the conscious level a deep rift can separate sense from spirit, no different than the ostensible divide between matter and energy. The Kabbalists explain, that due to Divine concealment (tzimtzum), we feel independent and separate from the inner forces that sustain us. The material senses can then “go off on their own,” divorced of their sublime connections. The soul of our senses, so to speak, can remain not only obscured, but completely hijacked, to the extent that the same sense of, say, unsubtle touch can so distract and overwhelm us, that it leads us away from realizing touch’s true potential. Instead of the sense being a catalyst that releases enormous power, it becomes a “candy” or “drug” that hold us tight in its tentacles of instant gratification; a “quick fix,” that always needs another one to follow. In place of our senses serving our intimate needs and opening up the softness of our spirits, selfish interests convert these same senses – like a sledge hammer being used to crack an egg – into tools of aggression. Imagine a mother forcefully yanking her child’s arm instead of delicately reaching for it. Instead of a gentle stroke, the same touch becomes a jolting punch.
Once in history the schism between sense and spirit was bridged. Sinai was this unprecedented event. 3320 years ago heaven and earth achieved fusion. Empowering us – till this day – to allow our own senses to reach the ethereal, and maintain the integration in our daily lives, in a sustainable and permanent fashion. At Sinai we received a blueprint for life (called the Torah) – like a life operators’ manual – which instructs us how to marry the Divine and the human.
Many people in our time connected to Hendrix’s lyric “ ‘scuse me while I kiss the sky.” Hendrix may have kissed the sky, but, tragically, did not return to tell about it. As did many of his contemporaries. Some returned, but did not offer us a workable system to merge the senses and transcendence.
Sinai teaches us just that. Want to find out how? Search out for a Torah class which focuses on the Torah’s relevance to our personal, emotional, psychological and spiritual lives.
What is a true touch?
What is a real kiss?
It is where heaven meets earth.
Where the sublime meets the secular.
Where our senses meet our spirits.
Where your body meets your soul.