Perception and Reality in the Appreciation of Torah
In Parshas Zos Ha'Beracha, pasuk 33:2 begins:
Va'yomar: Hashem mi'Sinai bah, v'zarach m'Seir lamo, hofiya mehar Paran...
[And Moshe] said: Hashem came from [Har] Sinai, He had already radiated for them from Seir, had dawned from Mount Paran....
The Sifri learns from this pasuk that Hashem originally offered the Torah to the other nations. He offered it to the descendants of Esav (alluded to by Seir), and they asked, "What is written in the Torah?" Hashem responded, "Do not kill." (commandment #6 in the luchos). At which point, Esav's descendants declined to accept the Torah.
Hashem also presented the Torah to the descendants of Yishmael (alluded to by Paran). They too asked what is written inside. When told the Torah says, "Do not steal," (commandment #8), they also demurred.
Menachem Baker in Parperaot L'Torah asks: when asked by the other nations what is written in the Torah, Hashem mentioned the later commandments (e.g., #6, #8, etc.). Whereas with bnei Yisroel, Hashem began with the first commandment, "Anochi Hashem Elokecha." Why didn't Hashem highlight the earlier commandments when responding to the query of the other nations? Maybe highlighting the positive might have elicited a different reaction?
R. Baker cites an answer from the Vilna Gaon explaining that the earlier commandments are on the right side of the luchos, while the later commandments are on the left side of the luchos. Since the other nations (at the time) read from left to right, they focused first on the commandments on the left, "Do not kill," "Do not steal," etc. And stopped there. Whereas bnei Yisroel who read from right to left, first read the earlier commandments on the right.
Sounds almost quaint, but I think there's a deeper insight - more here than meets the eye.
R. Eliyahu Dessler explains in Strive for Truth: "all reality is relative to the observer...what I perceive as real defines my world..." R. Dessler further explains that what people tend to perceive is often colored by what interests them. As an example, most people wouldn't give more than a second's glance to the suits worn by pedestrians on the street, whereas a professional tailor would notice every detail (see Part 3, page 223).
To come back to the Vilna Gaon's point, IMHO, I don't think it's simply a matter of which direction one reads. In fact, whether one reads from right to left, or left to right, the words are ultimately the same. Yet, it remains possible for two different people to have two very different reactions to the same words depending on their respective mindsets.
Here, the "interests" of the other nations was indulging their material desires. As such, they perceived the Torah as an obstacle that would interfere with their objective of physical gratification. The prohibitions against pursuing activities that were part of the daily fabric of their lives is what jumped out at them, and this is what caused them to reject the Torah, irrespective of what else was written inside.
In contrast, the bnei Yisroel possessed spiritual aspirations, and perceived the Torah as a roadmap to achieve their spiritual goals. The commandments that would facilitate spiritual growth is what jumped out at them, and led them to accept the Torah.
Same text, but different perceptions driven by different mindsets. One might even say that the nations reading from left to right, and bnei Yisroel reading from right to left, symbolizes that the two groups came at the Torah from diametrically opposed perspectives - one material, one spiritual. Resulting in two diametrically opposed reactions.
Interestingly, the idea of diametrically opposed reactions to the same content was brilliantly illustrated in a print ad campaign recently run by HSBC Bank called "Point of View" (which anyone who frequently travels through airports would be familiar with). The print ads feature four boxes with two different photos in each. Two different single words that represent opposite extremes are superimposed over each photo with each word expressing a diametrically opposed opinion about the photo.
Clearly, this is something you need to see to understand. So as an example, there might be two pictures of the same cat and two pictures of the same dog. Over the first picture of the cat is the word "love," and over the first picture of the dog is the word "loathe." And then over the second picture of the cat is the word "loathe," and over the second picture of the dog is the word "love." The point being that one's reaction to the photos is going to depend entirely on whether one is a cat-lover or a dog-lover (or a cat or a dog! ; - ).
Another example: a picture of a laptop and a picture of a toddler - over the first picture of the laptop is the word "work," and over the first picture of the toddler is the word "play." Then the words are reversed over the second photos. Again, the point is that depending on how you view time spent working vs. time spent child rearing, you are going to have a different reaction to the photos. Click here and here to see more examples.
In sum, the HSBC ads illustrate the same idea we are discussing here: the reality of multiple viewpoints and interpretations of meaning depending on the mindset and perspective one brings to the table.
Such considerations are particularly important for those engaged in kiruv. The mindset of someone newly introduced to Torah may be that there's alot of prohibitions. For someone raised in Western culture, where people are free to make their own choices, the perception becomes that the Torah is constraining. The job of the kiruv professional is to ask his or her students to suspend their entrenched perceptions and adopt a different perspective - one that sees value, for example, in personal growth and character development, which the Torah can facilitate. The Torah thus becomes a roadmap that can be embraced as liberating rather than feared as constraining (indeed, one can imagine an HSBC-style ad with two pictures of the Torah and the word "prohibition" and "liberation" superimposed on each, with one perspective representing that of the other nations approached by Hashem, and the other perspective representing that of bnei Yisroel at Har Sinai; our goal is to explain why the word "liberation" is the correct and accurate perspective).
Additionally, the same idea can be used to help improve communication between spouses. Specifically, spouses need to realize that men and women are wired differently, which means they are going to have different reactions to the same incident, predicament, etc. Understanding the other's perspective can go a long to defusing arguments. This is a major point of John Gray's Mars and Venus books.