When writing about Parshat Yitro previously, I have noted the fascinating phrase, "וכל העם רואים את הקולות - And the people saw the thunder". Noting that the faculty of vision is one which can be extremely misleading, I wrote:
"We can’t presume to know anything about anything by looking at it. The only way to know for sure is by listening to something, by slowly and closely analysing it. But at Har Sinai, when we were in such close proximity to Hashem, we experienced a return to the state of Adam HaRishon whereby our senses all told us the same thing, whereby they all told us the absolute truth. In this context we can understand the concept of Am Yisrael seeing the Kolot [thunder], because their hearing and their seeing were no different from one another. We can now understand that which normally has to be heard, (as in Sh’ma Yisrael – the knowledge of Hashem,) was so obvious and clear that Am Yisrael could clearly perceive through even the most deceiving of the senses." (Source)
That is one explanation. In this D'var Torah, I would like to mention another so that we can regard this occurence from a different perspective.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein has an intiguing D'var Torah that sheds light on this phenomenon. There is a Midrash (I can't find the original, but it is cited in Yalkut Shimoni and certainly appears in the Mechilta) that reads thus: "בשם רבי: "להודיע שבחן של ישראל שכשעמדו כולן לפני הר סיני לקבל את התורה היו שומעים את הדיבור ומפרשים אותו". We read here that Rebbi taught that at Har Sinai, when the Jewish people heard Hashem speaking to them, they didn't just hear the words but also interpreted them on their own. The source for this is found in Deuteronomy 32:10, where it says "יסובבנהו יבוננהו", which means "He encircled him, He made him comprehending".
We take the passage above to mean that Hashem made man an intellecual, reasoning and interpretive creature. As such, when we were given the Torah at Har Sinai, we didn't merely enjoy the uniquely magnificent sound and light show in a passive manner. When we read of the incredible spectacle that occured at Har Sinai that day, total silence shattered by blasts of the shofar, iluminated by crashes of thunder and roaring lightning, it would be easy to imagine the onlooking Jewish people as regarding things in a manner somewhat resembling a theatre audience.
It would be easy to simply take in what was happening, such was the awesome scale of this "show". Instead, the people took more than a simple passive role and instead took on a crucial role, participating in receiving the Torah. This is powerful lesson to us all - we never simply receive something in this world. The Torah is not a static entity with no relevance to us. We all have a deep connection to it and it remains up to us to engage with the Torah.
From Jerusalem, wishing you a stimulating and challenging Shavuot