One of the worst pieces of advice I have ever given to a friend was to “follow her heart.” In truth, I did not have the courage to tell her what I really thought, and it seemed to be the most appropriate platitude to end the conversation. Now Mel and I have an inside joke about that phrase, using it when we do not approve of the other one’s idea, but don’t want to turn it down outright. Why is telling someone to follow their heart often the worst thing we can do? In large part because we know, as the Torah tell us, that our hearts often lead us astray.
In Parashat Shelach l’cha, we come across a Hebrew root that is repeated several times – תור, which can mean to scout, tour, follow, or wander. It is used in two different contexts in this portion, but these two examples are connected in meaningful ways. In Numbers 13:16, this verb is used to describe the spies scouting out the Land of Israel (as we remember, most of them bring back a grim report.) It is also used in Numbers 15:38-39, “Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart [Heb. ve-lo taturu] and eyes in your lustful urge.”
Dr. Yair Barkai shows us the connections that Rashi and the midrash make between these two verses, “Rashi hints at the connection between the two passages in the beginning of his commentary on Num. 15:38-39: ‘So that you do not follow your heart – as in ‘scouting the land’ (above, Num. 13:25). The heart and the eyes are scouts for the body, and are the agents leading it to transgress. The eyes see and the heart desires, and the body commits the transgressions.’ Later Rashi cites Midrash Tanhuma (Shelah, 15), apparently wishing to intimate that the occurrence of the same root in these two parts of the weekly reading indicates a moral connection between the subject matter of each section: the scouts were not just touring the land, they were following the inclinations of their hearts and eyes.”
Our hearts and our eyes can lead to us toward sin, not just toward knowledge and enlightenment. In other texts, the question arises, are the eyes or the heart more responsible for our wrongdoing? The Sifre claims the heart should taken to task because even people who are blind are driven to follow their lustful urges. Our hearts influence what our eyes perceive in the world, and how we make sense of our surroundings. If we gaze upon the earth with fear, we will see a frightening world. If we are consumed with lust, we will see temptation everywhere. If we are hateful in our hearts, we will identify everywhere objects of derision.
So the question is, how do we influence our hearts to see the world in a more positive and holy way? This is one of the roles of prayer. In Judaism we are told that before we pray, we must l’chaven et libeinu, we must orient our hearts. If we do not know where Jerusalem is, we orient our hearts toward the holy city. Before the Amidah, we must meditate before we open our mouths in order to say the right words in a way that is pleasing to God. Prayer is a daily way that we can work on orienting our hearts to seeing the world in a productive way; to focus on wonder and gratitude, instead of resentment and cynicism. Taking a few minutes each morning to pray (the language does not matter), may lead us to begin seeing the world differently. When we introduce this spiritual discipline into our lives, we may find ourselves seeing more potential and less peril, observing more opportunities for love and fewer for contempt, and identifying more paths to achieving our personal and communal missions in this world.