Stephen King writes, in Danse Macabre, on the most effective forms of horror. He identified a key issue: no matter how horrible a monster looked, some small part of the viewer would always breathe a sigh of relief: the hideous bug-eyed, child-eating creature could have had more eyes, or teeth, or drooled more. So a visual picture of a hideous terror is not the ultimate tool for terrorizing the audience.
Instead, King knows that words are far more effective. Unlike a picture, words engage our imagination. If we want to fear the worst, then we create it in our minds. Written – and ideally spoken – horror is, according to King, more effective than motion pictures.
I think Stephen King nails it, and the argument could be extended. Images work, but they don’t require higher order thinking. An image of delicious food provokes an instinctive reaction – the craving is almost instant. A description of that same food has to be read, processed, and then the imagination needs to engage in order to achieve the same result.
An animal reacts in a way that makes this very clear: a hungry cat sees or smells or hears the sounds associated with food, and they react immediately. But you won’t get that same reaction if you show Whiskers the ingredient list for Meow Mix. Cats can’t read words or think abstractly.
I think this helps explain a unique feature of the Torah: it has no pictures or images. Instead, it is a document that contains only words (and not even any vowels or punctuation). It is a document that refuses to tell the viewer anything unless and until the person learns Biblical Hebrew, and mentally engages in order to parse the text and then try to understand it on its own terms.
The text itself even gives a clue leading to this conclusion! We are forbidden to make a sculpted idol, a pesel, and commanded to destroy the idols of others (inside the Promised Land). We are even forbidden to create a three-dimensional representation of anything found in nature!
Here are all those verses (feel free to skip to the end):
You shall not make for yourself a sculptured/pesel image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.
You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves sculptured/pesel images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I am your G-d.
You are not to act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured/pesel image in any likeness whatever: the form of a man or a woman,
Take care, then, not to forget the covenant that your G-d concluded with you, and not to make for yourselves a sculptured/pesel image in any likeness, against which your G-d has enjoined you.
When you have begotten children and children’s children and are long established in the land, should you act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured/pesel image in any likeness, causing your G-d displeasure and vexation,
Instead, this is what you shall do to them: you shall tear down their altars, smash their pillars, cut down their sacred posts, and consign their images/pesel to the fire.
You shall consign the images/pesel of their gods to the fire; you shall not covet the silver and gold on them and keep it for yourselves, lest you be ensnared thereby; for that is abhorrent to your G-d.
Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images/pesel of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.
Cursed be any party who makes a sculptured/pesel or molten image, abhorred by G-d, a craftsman’s handiwork, and sets it up in secret.—And all the people shall respond, Amen.
This seems pretty definitive, right? G-d does not want any pesel! Right?
Because the only other uses of this root word in the text are as a verb, and they are commandments from G-d to Moses to sculpt the second tablets to be used for the commandments.
G-d said to Moses: “Carve/pesel two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.
So Moses carved/pesel two tablets of stone, like the first, and early in the morning he went up on Mount Sinai…
[and again] G-d said to me, “Carve/pesel out two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to Me on the mountain; and make an ark of wood.
I made an ark of acacia wood and carved/pesel out two tablets of stone like the first; I took the two tablets with me and went up the mountain.
What is the difference between a sculpted idol and the tablets? An idol is an image, while the tablets are the place where words are put. And although G-d made the world, he did it using words.
I think the difference is now clear: G-d is trying to always push us toward higher level thinking. Instead of worshipping nature, we connect with the Creator of nature. Instead of reflexively using violence, we first try to use words. Instead of creating images that require only animal-level mental processing, we create the canvas upon which words go, words that can only be read and understood by an educated person.
[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]
P.S. The tablets themselves, luchos, share a name with the poles that carry the ark of the covenant. Both function as holders of holiness and holy words.