Yanny & Laurel

By the time you read this, the controversy and the sensation may be over. Such is the nature of ephemeral excitements. But since it came up just before Shavuos and it helps us understand a Mattan Torah phenomenon, it is worth preserving just a bit longer. In case you did not hear the controversy, “an auditory illusion,” as it was dubbed by Wikipedia, allowed some people to hear the word “Laurel” and others the word “Yanny.”

To get some idea of the vast interest in this seemingly trivial dispute, 53% of 500,000 people heard “Laurel” and 47% heard “Yanny” listening to the same recording. Even the president of the United States weighed in using his famous Twitter account. What was this fuss all about?

The scientists happily explained it all empirically. Benjamin Munson, a professor of audiology at the University of Minnesota, suggested that “Yanny” can be heard in higher frequencies, while “Laurel” can be heard in lower frequencies. He therefore concluded, along with many colleagues, that “older people, whose ability to hear higher frequencies is more likely to have been degraded, usually hear ‘Laurel.’” Although this short audio clip went viral just before Yom Tov, I am told that the world of pop culture has already moved on to newer horizons. However, this one left us with a new metaphor for an eternal Torah concept.

Dovid Hamelech says in Tehillim (62:12): “One thing Hashem has spoken, these two have I heard.” Chazal interpret this to refer to at least two commandments in the Aseres Hadibros, as Klal Yisroel heard separate statements simultaneously. The Mechilta (Yisro), quoted by Rashi (Makkos 24a), teaches that this refers to the first two commandments, “Anochi” and “Lo yihiyeh lecha.” The other well-known reference is that in the commandment to keep Shabbos, the word zachor, to remember, which is in Parshas Yisro, and the word shamor, to safeguard Shabbos, which is in Parshas Va’eschanon, were uttered simultaneously (Rosh Hashanah 27a). Many meforshim discuss the purpose of these miracles. What was their function and what do they teach us?

Here, too, the metaphor of a higher and lower frequency is quite useful. The Chasam Sofer (Bamidbar 13b, Drashos 290b) understands the simple meaning of “Lo yihiyeh lecha” to mean avoiding idolatry. However, based upon the Chovos Halevavos (Shaar Avodas Elokim 4), he notes that the higher goal is to serve Hashem with no ulterior motives at all. This is the Anochi component, which declares that our service should be solely directed toward our relationship with the One and Only G-d. The Imrei Emes, whose 70th yahrtzeit was marked on Shavuos, explained that hearing two things when Hashem speaks but once is a function of the “power of Torah to multiply and grow” (Shavuos 5685/1925, page 76). Indeed, he notes that Shavuos grants us the ability to exponentially increase our understanding and connection to the Torah all year long.

On a perhaps even more profound level, the Sefer Chareidim (chapter 7) reveals that one consequence of the simultaneous declamation of Anochi and Lo yihiyeh lecha is that “in order to fulfill the very first of the commandments, one must have great love and be at peace with every single Jew. Furthermore, he must attempt to promote peace in the world. Torah scholars are aware of this great secret and are therefore extremely careful to further this goal, as Chazal said, ‘Talmidei chachomim spread peace throughout the world.’” One aspect of this “secret” may be that since we are one with Hashem and the Torah, enhancing peace with every Jew promotes our commitment to spreading appreciation and acceptance of yichud Hashem. Thus, we see that we often begin with a basic understanding of a posuk or statement of Chazal, which grows and burgeons inside us, creating a virtual multiplicity of spiritual experience.

More recently, Rav Dovid Kohn, the Toldos Aharon Rebbe (Hadei’ah Vehadibbur 5773/2013, page 2) suggests that “hearing two when Hashem speaks once” means that when we have full trust in the words of Hashem, they help us on multiple levels of the spiritual and material, in chesed and in din. To probe even deeper, everyone knows that the Aseres Hadibros can be read in one of two ways, either with the taam tachton, the so-called lower cantillations, or the taam elyon, the higher notes. The Chizkuni (Shemos 20:14) explains that “this phenomenon reflects the fact that on Shavuos we replicate Mattan Torah, when each commandment contains all the halachos associated with that law…such as zachor veshamor being spoken simultaneously.” The Vilna Gaon and other poskim (see Magein Avrohom 493) seem to follow this approach, since they utilize the taam elyon only on Shavuos, but when reading Parshas Yisro, they use the taam tachton. In other words, it would seem that Hashem gave the Torah on two levels, one as pesukim and one as dibros or commandments. Since on Shavuos we received these holy words as commandments, we read them in public with the taam elyon (see Ohel Moshe, Shemos 493-494). For us, the lesson is that we can indeed listen to one voice that divinely multiplies into two and more as we study and concentrate on its eternal message.

An example of the merging of two essential thoughts into one is offered by Rav Boruch Halevi Epstein, author of the Torah Temimah. He suggests that zachor and shamor were miraculously stated simultaneously to teach that “the tranquility of Shabbos, as represented by Kiddush and zachor, can only be properly fulfilled when coupled with adhering to the prohibitions of Shabbos, as represented by shamor. Only when taken together do they personify the beauty and totality of the Divine gift of Shabbos” (Boruch She’omar, page 286).

Over two centuries ago, the Dubna Maggid echoed this sentiment when he pithily declared that “some attempt to pry the zachor from the shamor, but they are welded together for eternity. The pauper has no problem obeying the prohibitions of Shabbos because he does not have the temptation to run a large business seven days a week. However, he has difficulty buying all the needs of an elaborate Shabbos table. The wealthy man, on the other hand, enjoys an expansive Shabbos meal, but feels constrained by the plethora of Shabbos restrictions. Shabbos must be kept by everyone without attempting to encroach on either zachor or shamor” (Rav Yechiel Michel Stern, Sefer HaShabbos, page 213).

Although Yanny and Laurel may seem petty and trivial indeed, the confluence of gashmiyus and ruchniyus, chesed and din, lo saaseh and aseh, is profound enough to merit our attention. Perhaps even a fleeting “perceptually ambiguous stimulus,” as one scientist called it, can become a useful tool if we borrow it to better understand an enigmatic teaching of Chazal.

 On another level entirely, we can use Yanny and Laurel to concretize an ancient lesson from our gedolim. The parsha of Mattan Torah begins with the words “Yisro heard.” Many meforshim contrast Yisro’s action in joining Klal Yisroel after hearing of various miracles with those of the residents of Eretz Yisroel. They, too, “heard, they were agitated” and “terror gripped” them (Shemos 15:14), but none of them picked themselves up and changed their lives. What distinguished Yisro?

The baalei mussar translate in Yiddish, “It’s not that er hut gehert. Ehr hut derhert. He didn’t just hear something. He listened to the message.” The clarion call of the Jew is Shema Yisroel, because to truly hear something means to listen and act.

My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, explains the somewhat incongruous halacha that if someone blinds a person, he must pay the value he lost as a healthy slave on the open market. However, if he deafens him, he must pay his entire value. Why? Surely, blinding someone is a much more devastating injury than causing deafness. “However,” Rav Hutner answers, “making someone deaf disables him from being a servant altogether, since he can no longer obey commands.”

The art of listening is what makes us avdei Hashem, and that means listening on multiple levels.

May we go forth from Shavuos committed to listening to every nuance of the Torah, whether easy or difficult, pleasant or painful. This commitment will prove that we truly heard the message of Sinai, but also that we listened and acted upon its sounds on all frequencies.