Shelach Lecha: What we see with our eyes and what we see with our hearts (or when we notice the grasshoppers)

Sidra Shelach Lecha is book-ended with the commandment to look. Early on in the sidra the scouts are urged to look from the hill country to see what kind of country Canaan is, and to bring back information about the land and its inhabitants; while at the end of the portion we find the commandment about tzitzit, the fringes we put upon our garments which will act as a reminder of all of God’s commandments whenever we look at them.

Both of these instructions contain another powerful verb too – one we are clearly meant to notice as it appears eleven times in the sidra – the root la-tur – which in modern Hebrew means to go sightseeing, but which is richer and more complex in its biblical usage. We translate it in the story of the spies as meaning “to scout the land”, but in the directions about tzitzit we can see that it means more than superficial looking, but is about noticing, involving the self through the act of observation. The power of this form of engagement is made more clear by the rest of the verse: “look at them and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart (ve-lo taturu) and eyes in your lustful urge.”

We can read the first story in the light of the last – and so add a moral dimension to the activities of the spies and their instruction la-tur: – instead of being asked to simply go around the land, they are being required to throw themselves fully into the scouting, in order to find their true objective. They were to pay complete attention, to follow the awareness of their hearts and their eyes.

Hearts and eyes. They define for the rabbinic tradition two ways of being in the world. Tradition tells us that we may follow our eyes and therefore have our ideas influenced by what we see in the world – in other words how we experience it changes how we understand it – or else we follow the heart, and hold a moral compass inside ourselves, so that how we experience the world is influenced by what we believe to be true. Both may be valid, but a Midrash on this sidra teaches that a person perceives the world according to the understanding of their heart. In other words, a person’s interpretation of what their eyes see is not objective, but we construct our own realities independently of external certainty. “So that you do not follow your heart – does this indicate that the eyes follow the heart or that the heart follows the eyes? Are there not blind people who commit all the abominations in the world? Thus we learn from Scripture that the words “So that you do not follow your heart” indicate that the eyes follow the heart.”(Sifrei)

The argument that blind people also sin – and clearly one can say that their eyes did NOT lead them into transgression –buttresses the approach that a person follows their heart.

It is maybe not how we would adduce the proof today, but the outcome is eerily modern – We see only what we choose to see; We understand only what we have the equipment to understand; We notice only what is important to us. How we appreciate and behave in the world is constructed from our own internal resource rather than responding to some objective and measurable reality.

The problem for the spies was not anything really to do with what they had actually seen in their touring the land – the reports back from all twelve agreed that the land was wonderful, fertile, filled with good things but also that it was well defended by a number of different powerful tribes. The problem with the ten spies – and subsequently with the people of Israel – was what they felt about the information they had brought back. We might say it was a problem of perspective – which did they give more weight to when seeing the land: their faith in God who had brought them this far, or their fear for themselves and their future?

They were unlike Caleb and Joshua who clearly understood the dangers yet in their belief in God they spoke up: yachol nuchal – we are certainly able to do it”

The difference reflects not what they all saw, but their inner belief systems, what was in their heart. Caleb and Joshua saw the land for which they have been yearning ever since exile in Egypt. But the spies saw only a fortified land that takes precedence over people, a land rich and fertile and populated. Their perspective was not of the divine covenant but of the power of other people, and they felt diminished in the shadow of those people, so much so that they saw themselves as grasshoppers – fragile, transient, lowly – and worse, they imagined that the current inhabitants of the land would share that image of them.

How we feel inside ourselves, what values we hold, what beliefs we claim, shape our experience of the world. It dictates what we see and it what we simply don’t notice. And what we see around us in turn changes how we feel inside ourselves, impacts upon our values and belief system, alters who we become. If we are so fixed upon our constructed reality that we can no longer notice the outside world, then we will be unable to grow and to change. Our horizons will narrow to fit what we are prepared to acknowledge. All our lives must be spent challenging what we comfortably believe to be the case, we have to force ourselves to notice what we would rather not see, be prepared to take a view other than the one we created for ourselves earlier.

It is hard to do this, to use both hearts and eyes – mediate the easy view of the situation. This is the beauty of instruction to wear fringes on clothing – they are an external reminder of an internal belief system. When we see them we are to think of God’s commandments, directives which exist only in relation to our acceptance of them. Both eyes and heart have to work together, we cannot assume we know what it is all about.

Rabbinic tradition teaches that the mitzvah of tzitzit is equal to all the other mitzvot together, as we are told “look and recall all the commandments of the Eternal and observe them.” Yet the commandment only comes into force if we are wearing a four cornered garment. And this mitzvah can be observed in two different ways – either as tallit katan, an undergarment which only we will see and know of, or as the tallit which we wrap around ourselves, and which we present to the outside world. This resonates with our hearts and eyes – one reflects the internal system with which we see the world, the other acts as the external nudge which forces us to think about what is out there. Hearts and eyes. We need them both.

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