Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 22 June 2019 / 19 Sivan 5779

Parshat Shlach

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Avenues of Exploration

At the very end of the parsha, in the context of the commandment to wear tzitzit (fringes), the Torah instructs: and you shall not go exploring [taturu] after your own heart and after your own eyes, [and] following them, become unfaithful to [G-d]. This language echoes the words used in the very beginning of the parsha to send the spies on their mission: they were sent to “explore.” (vayaturu, latur; 13:2, 16).

The juxtaposition encourages us to understand these references in concert. The failure of the spies, who ‘explored’ the land and came to rebel against G-d, stands as a reminder to us not to similarly ‘explore’ after our hearts and eyes, so that we will not repeat their mistake.

Exploration is a cognitive activity, whereby one seeks to know whether someone is right or wrong, good or bad, useful or useless. The heart forms our wishes and desires, and the eyes seek the means to gratify those wishes. When a person is left to himself, it is only the ego which shapes his wishes and wants. The eye perceives what appears to be sensually pleasing. When the exploration is in the service of the heart and eyes, the mind is employed to distinguish between the ‘good’ (whose sensual qualities will bring satisfaction to the heart) and the ‘bad’ (whose sensual qualities block that satisfaction). When the exploring mind is used in the service of heart and eyes, the mind is not free to make its own judgments of objective value. It is not free to contemplate G-d and His Torah. Rather, all is evaluated from the standpoint of what will bring those wishes of the heart into fruition.

By contrast, when we put the heart and eyes in service of that mind which has subordinated itself to G-d, then we “explore” things in consideration of their value for satisfying G-d’s Will. Intellectual and sensual greatness no longer have objective worth — greatness and power lie with G-d and His morality. In turn, this results in the transformation of our whole emotional and sensual being — our wishes, hopes and fears are redefined.

The spies explored the Land after their hearts — to gratify their own desires; and after their eyes — their judgment of how to achieve the gratification of those desires was based on what they saw with their sensual eyes. On this basis they drew their conclusions. The loyal Caleb, by contrast, is described as following after G-d. This was the single yardstick by which the spies were supposed to measure the Land and its inhabitants. Had G-d and His Will been the yardstick for all of the spies, they would have understood that G-d alone directs actions and guides fate, and they would have examined whether and how they could be worthy of His support. Instead, because they explored after their own hearts and eyes they lost sight of G-d. In doing so they lost sight of their own power and worthiness, and viewed themselves as powerless grasshoppers next to the inhabitants of the Land. Through this lens, what G-d rejected came to seem ‘good’ in their eyes, and what G-d had promised came to seem ‘bad.’

We are reminded at the end of this parsha to ensure that our minds are not similarly commandeered by our hearts and our eyes. Only then are we free to follow after G-d.

  • Sources: Commentary, Bamidbar 16:39-41

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