“Only do what your heart tells you.”— Princess Diana
“Your heart is free, have the courage to follow it.”— Braveheart
“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”— Confucius
“Follow your passion, follow your heart, and the things you need will come.” — Elizabeth Taylor
There are few pieces of advice as prevalent in our culture as, “Follow your heart.” Perhaps a response to a previous generation’s stern focus on livelihood or conservatism. Freedom of expression and a vibrant life with sensitivity, love, and pride in oneself is surely the key to self actualization and inner peace. Or is it? The matter may be slightly more nuanced.
In this week’s parsha, Shelach, there’s the whole mess dealing with the Spies (meraglim in Hebrew). Then afterwards, the Torah gives the mitzvah of wearing tzitzits (fringes on certain garments). Within that section, the Torah gives a reasoning for the mitzvah (which it rarely does.)
And it shall constitute for you tzitzis that you may see it and you will remember all the commandments of God and do them, and not explore after your heart and after your eyes which you stray after. (Bamidbar 15:39)
Okay, so there’s this mitzvah to wear strings on your clothes which are going to remind you of the mitzvahs. Kinda like tie a string around your finger, but it’s 32 strings, some knots, and a bit of blue depending on which tradition you hold by. But don’t explore after your eyes and heart? Why not? The Rabbis extrapolate that, “don’t explore after your heart and eyes,” is so important it’s not only its own separate mitzvah, but it is something known as a constant mitzvah.
There are 613 mitzvahs. But you can’t always do all 613. Some only apply to men, some only apply to the priests, some you can only do when you’re in Israel, etc. However what about keeping kosher? You’re never allowed to eat pork. But you only actually fulfill the mitzvah when you have a desire to eat ham or a piece of bacon. So even though you always have to do mitzvahs, you don’t always have the opportunity to accomplish them. But then there are six mitzvahs that you always have the ability to fulfill.
- Know there is a God.
- Love God.
- Fear God.
- Know that God is echad (one).
- Don’t believe in any other gods.
- Don’t explore after your eyes and your heart.
If you’re a religious person already on this observant track, I would hope the first five are pretty straight forward. You may need to work on making them real in your life, and even more work making them constant, but you can see why they are logical.
Then you get to number six. What does it mean explore? And what about the eyes? Is that why the most religious look down all the time refusing to glance at a woman? Then the heart? Why can’t a person pursue their passions? This isn’t God stuff anymore, this is our daily existence! How can we be expected to keep this… and constantly!?
Sorting The Heart from the Head
To make sense of all this we need a little perspective and definition. Yes a person should pursue the work they find fulfilling. Living for paycheck alone can be soul crushing. That’s not what the Torah is prohibiting.
Desire alone and left unchecked, grows, can be fickle, and is never satisfied. This can lead to a path that at best can leave us regretful and at worst sends us crashing to rock bottom. But obviously the secular adage of “follow your heart,” can’t be completely wrong.
The reason why don’t explore after… is the sixth of the constant mitzvahs is that before you go after anything, you need clarity. What do I want? What do I need? What’s right? What’s good? Those come from logic and wisdom. The first five constant mitzvahs establish that. When you intellectually understand the direction you need to go, you must commit to that. You can have passion and heart while you’re pursuing that, but it must have its foundation in reason.
It’s at that point, the yetzer hara (evil inclination) likes to challenge your commitment. The Talmud Yerushalmi puts it, “The eye sees, the heart covets, and the body commits the sin.” When you have clarity of what is bad for you, it’s at that point you need to be on guard, set up some fences. If you have a problem with alcohol, take the long way to work so you don’t pass the liquor store. Because even looking at the sign as you drive by is a first step.
It Seems Impossible
Seriously? God expects us to never follow after our eyes and heart? Maybe if I were a Rabbi, but c’mon, get real. Yes, this seems like a lofty goal, but I’d like to bring up two ideas.
One, I pointed out that also in this parsha was the tragedy of the spies. They toured the land of Israel for 40 days and when they came back, most of them gave a bad report about the land. In reference to the inhabitants they said, “In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.” (Bamidbar 13:33)
According to Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, “all of the failures of the children of Israel were caused by a lack of self confidence.” We are far more capable than we think we are. If we view ourselves as unable, the people around us will view us as such. But if you adopt the “fake it till you make it” mentality, it can be a game changer. Then to add on top of that the fact that you’ve got God behind you, well then you’ve got no reason to at least start on that path.
But what if I fail?
Well you probably will. Growth (and life) isn’t a straight line from A to B. In fact, the very verse that we’re referencing seems to say this. (This is my second point). “[Do]not explore after your heart and after your eyes which you stray after.” The verse acknowledges that you’re going to fail because this is human nature. But the point of Torah is to grow beyond human nature and approach as close to Godliness as possible. It’s not supposed to be easy. And you may never get there. But the distance you do travel can be surprising if you try just a bit, but on a regular basis. So start with 20 minutes a day. Or even 5.
Last thing. The mitzvah of tzitzis gets you reward. But only when you’re seeing the strings and thinking about the mitzvahs. The way I believe they work is that when you start to go off “exploring,” you have something physical you can reach for. If you take the next step to look at them and think about the mitzvah, you get the reward points, but more importantly, you may just set yourself back on the right course and away from distraction.
Thank you. Well written and much needed.