“Do Not Follow After the Desires of Your Heart and Eyes”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

While the major theme of parashat Shelach concerns the scouts who return from the Land of Israel with an evil report and the Al-mighty’s decision that the people of Israel will not enter the Promised Land for forty years, there are several other important themes found in the parasha.

Other topics in parashat Shelach include: the proper amounts of meal offerings and wine libation that are brought together with the various sacrifices, the requirement to give a piece of the dough (Challah) to the priests, the laws regarding intentional and unintentional idol worship, and the story of the M’ko’shaish מְקֹשֵׁשׁ, the person who violated the Shabbat in the wilderness by gathering wood on the Sabbath day. The parasha concludes with the well-known third and final paragraph of the Shemah שְׁמַע prayer, regarding the mitzvah of Tzitzit, the fringes required to be placed on all four-cornered men’s garments.

The last five verses of parashat Shelach, Numbers 15:37-41, speak of the commandment of Tzitzit צִיצִת. The children of Israel are commanded to make for themselves Tzitzit (fringes on the corners of their garments) throughout their generations. Each fringe is to have a thread of T’chaylet תְּכֵלֶת, a special blue dye, so that when the Jew sees the Tzitzit, he shall remember all the commandments of G-d and perform them. Numbers 15:39 concludes וְלֹא תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם זֹנִים  אַחֲרֵיהֶם…[The purpose of the Tzitziot is] so that you not follow the desires of your heart and your eyes, which lead you astray. The paragraph concludes: It [this Mitzvah] is for you to remember and perform all of G-d’s commandments, and be holy for your G-d. I am the L-rd, your G-d, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your G-d. I am the L-rd, your G-d.

There is no other nation like the people of Israel, who are so thoroughly obsessed with learning and education. Maimonides writes (Laws of Torah Study 1:8) that every Jew is required to learn Torah, whether rich or poor, healthy or ailing, young or  weakened by old age. Even a pauper or a man with a large family has to establish set times for Torah learning during the day and night. The obsession with learning Torah and education has led our rabbis to say (Mishnah Peah 1:1) that, “Learning Torah is equal to all other mitzvot” and that (Talmud Kiddushin 40b), “Studying is greater than doing, because studying leads to doing.”

Rabbi Yaakov Philber, in his important and insightful volume Hemdat Yamim, notes that there is a longstanding debate among the classical Jewish philosophers regarding the requirement to study Torah and the pursuit of education. Does the requirement apply to the study of Torah and Judaism exclusively, or does it also include secular education? It is a debate that continues to rage to this very day. However, all agree, that only those secular studies that enhance Torah study should be pursued. “Secular studies” that are destructive, may not be studied. (There are some authorities who maintain that it is important to know what the heretics and enemies say, in order to respond properly to skeptics, when necessary).

Because of the dangers that abound in being exposed to destructive ideas and philosophies, the Torah sets boundaries, and demands that Jews not follow “the desires of their hearts and eyes.” These limitations set by the Torah, fly against much of contemporary opinion and values. Effective education, declare many contemporary experts, must be “open” and “open-minded,” requiring the legitimization of virtually all speech and study, even that which is harmful and dangerous. They further believe that those who honestly seek truth, must allow for an uncompromised free exchange of ideas in the media and press, in universities and in all places of study.

Judaism also recognizes and values the benefits that accrue from open-mindedness and honest intellectual inquiry. Yet, Jewish law sets limits. Just as there are limits to what a person eats, in order to protect one’s physical health, so must caution be exercised when imbibing ethical and spiritual knowledge. In fact, many Torah rules are purposely designed to “limit” our physical and intellectual activities. The laws of Lashon Hara לָשׁוֹן הָרַע  restrict wanton speech, the laws of Kashrut כַּשְׁרוּת  restrict what foods may be eaten, and the laws of forbidden marital relationships restrict certain sexual activities.

Rabbeinu Bachya, in his introduction to Chovot Halivavot, Duties of the Heart, strongly advocates openness in education; arguing that without broad knowledge, grasping the depths of the Torah to its fullest would be impossible.

On the other hand, Rabbi Judah HaLevi, in his masterwork, the Kuzari, argues that the Torah of G-d is entirely and totally pure, rendering it superior to any other body of knowledge, or the intellectual explorations of any researcher or scholar (Kuzari: Article 2:26).

I believe it was the literary critic, Lionel Trilling (1905-1975), who once quipped that, “Some people are so open-minded that their brains fall out!” This is the apparent condition of contemporary society.

As we write, the media continues to focus on the most recent mass killing that occurred near the campus of the University of California Santa Barbara.  The young gunman, described as mentally ill or demented, authored a long “manifesto,” spelling out his grievances toward the women on campus who rejected him socially. This recent attack has touched off an anguished conversation regarding the ways in which women are perceived sexually, and the violence frequently perpetrated against them. Talk of “misogyny” has captured the airwaves. Men and women are urging authorities to consider the implications of the recent attack and its impact on society. Women are no longer willing to tolerate the unrelenting catcalls, leers, and the fears of sexual violence that they constantly experience. No longer free to walk the campus alone, they need to travel in packs and carry pepper spray in their purses for protection.

Yet, the issue is greater than male attitudes toward women and people’s obsession with sexuality. What we see today is nothing more than the seeds that we have sown over the past thirty, forty years, with the increasing and unrelenting breakdown of morality and moral behavior. How can it be that a noble nation such as ours, has been reduced by such ignoble values and behavior? Should we really be surprised by the contemporary lack of morality and decency when more than 85% of American entertainment features violence and sex? And much of the change of values took place long before the internet pushed the envelope, providing much greater exposure of new perversions, which were beyond imagination just a few years ago.

In 1973, Karl Menninger wrote, “Whatever Became of Sin?” Wendy Shalit published, “The Return to Modesty.” 3300 years earlier the Torah declared: Set limits! Limits must be established and must be enforced–one may not follow the desires of one’s heart and one’s eyes. “Anything goes” is a recipe for anarchy, which is exactly where we find ourselves today.

Gone are the calls for good and noble deeds and behavior. No longer are actions of chivalry, kindness and good manners, admired, praised or esteemed. “We want what we want, and we want it now!” Woe onto the person who tries to stop us from getting what we want.

The Tzitziot, the little tassels on the corner of the garments are meant to remind us that there are limits. But more important than the Tzitziot themselves, is the need for a determined citizenry to set its endangered ship straight. We must declare boldly that, “Enough is enough!” The debauchery, harmful behaviors, perverted values, will no longer be tolerated.

Freedom of speech and freedom of thought are wonderful values– theoretically. But when exercised without limits, they are destructive, not constructive. Judaism has always taught that “structure” is what sets us free and allows us to accomplish much more than those who act without structure. Lack of structure and boundaries lead to chaos.

As the savagery progresses, no one is really safe. We are all subject to the blandishments of the evil that surrounds us. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all being rapidly reduced as human beings, even those who think they live in protective cocoons and isolated ghettos.

Remember the Tzitziot, the fringes, and the message of the tassels, and especially heed the final words of the Torah’s message regarding the Tzitziot (Numbers 15:40), לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם–remember and perform. It is not sufficient to simply remember, it is necessary to remember and perform. By carefully performing mitzvot both major and minor, without regard to their respective reward, we can be transformed into a holy nation, distancing ourselves from those evil passions that tend to corrupt. In that way, we will hopefully become קְדֹשִׁים לֵאלֹקֵיכֶם, Holy to G-d.

And if we, the People of Israel, are indeed successful in transforming ourselves, we will be in a powerful position to influence society at large. The message of the tassels may not only save us, but the world as well, by creating a universe thoroughly devoted to morality, goodness and holiness.

Remember the message of the Tzitziot!

May you be blessed.