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Parshat Shelach: Eyesight and Soulsight

(Pixabay)

If you have ever been to Times Square, you have noticed, to say the least, its vast display of billboards and advertisements. They dazzle with their vibrant colors and enchant with their curated message. In 2021, artist Rinat Rizvanov spent 16 painstaking hours editing an image of Times Square to remove all of its advertisements, leaving the popular site bare and naked. “Street ads,” Rizvanov told Newsweek, “are attention theft.” That description packs a punch.

Companies want consumers. They have their products, and they need consumers to buy them. Advertising is a primary strategy to accomplish that. Ads are not designed to merely present the product for potential buyers. Companies aren’t asking what is needed—they’re telling what is needed. We find great insight into this contemporary problem from the Torah’s ancient wisdom.

In Parshat Shelach, the people are told: “You will not then go astray, following the lusts of your hearts and of your eyes” (Bamidbar 15:39). Rashi elaborates that the eyes and heart are the “spies” of the body, what enable us to sin. “The eye sees, the heart covets, and the body does the sin,” he says, citing Midrash Tanchuma. The idea seems simple enough: It appears to be a discouragement of falling for the world’s looks. Vigilance is endorsed.

Nehama Leibowitz points out something strange about Rashi’s comment. The Torah normally encourages us to wonder at the world’s beauty—the array of colors painted across a garden, the intricate details of a single leaf, the masterful form of the plants. All of this leads us to foster a deeper relationship with Hashem, to love and fear Him. She cites Rambam’s words as one example. “When a person contemplates His great and wondrous works and creatures and from them obtains a glimpse of His wisdom which is incomparable and infinite,” Rambam writes, “he will straightway love Him, praise Him, glorify Him, and long with an exceeding longing to know His great Name” (Yesodei HaTorah 2:2).  He likens the feeling to a pasuk from Tehillim: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (42:3).

With this, Nehama identifies a striking contradiction. In our original pasuk, we are warned against gazing upon the world and straying after its guideposts to nowhere. Our hearts and eyes, from Rashi’s words, would seem best to detach from the world’s physicality. Yet Rambam says the complete opposite. It is through gazing upon the world that we bring ourselves closer to Hashem, to feel His overwhelming love gather us into the Divine embrace. What do we make of it?

Nehama explains that the world as an object of sight can be a blessing or a curse, something to bring Hashem into our lives or expel Him for alien gods. Rambam’s endorsement of the world came as an affirmation of Hashem’s expression in the world. One approaches the world and leaves in the spirit of transcendence, an abundance of love and awe flowing inward. In contrast to the original pasuk, the description is of one in search of something—the eyes and heart are “astray,” aimless, purposeless, empty. The world becomes the ocean with no limits, a place to find the meaning of one’s life. When the world’s eye candy is used to guide our lives, that is where the problems arise.

Ads seem to be precisely that. We are being sold a lifestyle, an ideal, that did not emerge from within. It came from without. The distinction can be made between eyesight and soulsight. The former is ephemeral, surface level. The latter is everlasting, gratifying, real. To align with our highest selves, we need to use soulsight, not just eyesight.

About the Author
Sruli Fruchter is a senior at Yeshiva University studying International and Global Affairs. He is passionate about Torah, self-growth, and bringing Hashem into every aspect of our lives. Sruli has vast experience in international relations, is the Editor in Chief of The Commentator, and the Host of the Soul Life Podcast, which can be found on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
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