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The Roving Eye and the Wandering Heart

Thoughts on parashat Shelach

Menachem Mirski

Reason, feelings, senses… Since antiquity philosophers, thinkers and writers have wandered about these notions relating to intellectual and spiritual phenomena. What should we follow and when? Are there any general rules in this matter or does everything depend on the situation?

Opinions on this matter were divided. This week’s Torah portion also raises this point:

[…] And it shall be to you as a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that you seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you go astray. (Numbers 15:39)

These words are the words of the third paragraph of our daily Shema: ve’lo taturu akharei levavchem ve’acharei eineichem asher atem zonim achareihem. The Hebrew verb taturu used here to express ‘you shall not seek after’ is the same as the verb (latur) used to describe spying that was to be done by the spies exploring the Promised Land at the very beginning of our parasha (Number 13:2, 13:16) As Rashi explains it further by quoting other sources:

The heart and the eyes are the “spies” of the body — they act as its agents for sinning: the eye sees, the heart covets and the body commits the sin (Midrash Tanchuma, Sh’lach 15; cf. Talmud Yerushalmi Berakhot 1:8).

Indeed, our hearts and senses provoke us to sin and this claim can be found in many religious traditions. But what does this ‘not following’ or ‘not exploring/seeking after’ our hearts and eyes really mean? How can we define it? When our feelings/sensory impressions are kosher and when they are not?

The verse itself gives us a hint: you should have tzitzit and look at them (they remind you of the commandments) so that you do not follow your heart or eyes (or other senses). But should we follow the commandments exclusively and completely reject our feelings and testimony of the senses? Some philosophical traditions have taught that but the Torah would have never suggested it. On the contrary, it is precisely a drinking in of the beauty and wonder of the universe that is likely to draw us closer to God and to love and fear Him. This is what Rabbi Bahya Ibn Pakuda observed in his Duties of the Heart:

Are we obliged to contemplate all created things or not? Both Reason and Tradition (written and oral) oblige us to contemplate creation and learn from it the wisdom of the Creator…
With respect to written tradition it is stated in the Bible: “Lift high your eyes and see: Who created these?” (Isaiah 40:26) and “When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You set in place, what is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him.” (Psalm 8:4-5)

Thus by loving the Creation we reach the Creator. In the rabbinic literature we can find even stronger expressions of love towards surrounding reality:

“A person will have to answer for everything that his eye beheld and he did not consume” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Kiddushin 4:12).

Rav Yehuda said: One who goes out during Nisan and sees trees that are blossoming recites: Blessed…who has withheld nothing from His world, and has created in it beautiful creatures and trees for human beings to enjoy. (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 43b)

The Rabbis also introduced multiple blessings with which we should bless God for creating the entire variety of natural phenomena: sea, sun, thunder, rainbow, an unusual creature or even something as abstract as beauty itself:

Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam shekahcha lo baolamo.
Blessed are you, our God, King of the Universe, who has [brought] such [beautiful things] in His universe.

Obviously we also have numerous blessings for various kinds of food, for which we bless the Creator everyday. Thus, how should we understand the commandment that tells us not to follow our hearts and our senses?

I believe that the proper, modern understanding of this commandment should be the following: We need to be constantly able to discern the connection between the phenomena we experience and the Creator. As long as we see this connection, are connected with the Creator ourselves and are grateful for everything that happens to us, we can do quite a lot, without a risk of being led astray by our feelings or senses. This is all on the spiritual level. On the practical level, it all means – metaphorically speaking – never taking your eyes off the tzitzit – off the commandments. In other words, we need to see (or at least be able to see) all reality in the context of the Divine law.

What are the further, practical consequences of what I just suggested here? I believe that we shall never base our (ethical) judgments exclusively on what our heart tells us – exclusively on empathy, exclusively on compassion. These judgements will never be just. Compassion, empathy should be a component of our judgments but only within the wider context of the Divine law that distinguishes what is good and evil, right and wrong. Only when we are able to situate a human being or an action we judge in this context, then we can let our heart speak. In other words – we need to know who the person morally is or know the exact details of the actions we are talking about. Similarly we should never base our judgments exclusively on what we saw or experienced. It is always limited. There is always a lot more that we did not see nor experience. Here again, we should constantly look at our tzitzit – Divine commandments and judge the reality within this framework. The Divine law, spirit and wisdom helps us to constantly overcome our human limitations: subjectivity of our feelings, perception and our views. It also expands our great, but still limited, imagination.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA