Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shelah 5766/ June 17, 2006

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Seeing with the Heart


Dr. Yair Barkai




“Those were the names of the men whom Moses sent to scout [Heb. la-tur] the land” (Num. 13:16).

The root t-u-r (to scout) appears many times in Scripture, eleven of them in this week’s reading. [1]   There can be no doubt that this root is a key word or leitwort, whose various contexts should help us discover other nuances in addition to the simple meaning of this word—to scout.   Aside from noting the great number of occurrences of this root, we also ought to pay attention to the placement of the last occurrence of the root t-u-r in this week’s reading (Num. 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.

The passage on tzitzit (fringes), familiar to us as the third passage in the Shema, concludes this week’s reading.   So we see that our key word is not only frequent, it also opens and closes the parasha, thus attesting to its great significance. Exploring the meaning of the word ta-turu in the passage on tzitzit can guide us to its significance in the story of the spies.

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. [2]   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.

Moral Meanings

As a keyword in our parasha, the root t-u-r, used in a moral context, does not have the simple meaning of going around (in modern Hebrew it means sightseeing), rather it has a negative connotation of departing from the main road, from the straight and narrow; and wayfaring along twisting paths takes people away from the destination towards which they should direct themselves and which they would reach if only they continued following the proper road.

The eyes and the heart, mentioned in this verse, represent two different psychological approaches, both of which affect one’s view of human morality. One approach maintains that the things which a person looks at causes him/her to sin, and therefore one must take care not to look at things that are likely to lead one astray.  In other words, the eyes affect a person’s heart, as in Rashi’s commentary cited above, “The eyes see and the heart desires, and the body commits the transgressions.”

The other approach maintains that a person perceives according to the ruminations of the heart, i.e., a person’s interpretation of what the eyes see is not objective, rather it depends on the understanding of the heart.  As Sifre says (Shelah, par.115, Horowitz ed.  p. 127.):

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. [3]

The argument that blind people also sin – and clearly one cannot say that their eyes lead them into transgression –buttresses the second approach, namely that a person “follows his heart,” meaning his desires; a person’s yearnings and desires are what dictate what he will look at and how he will interpret what his eyes see. On the other hand, it is self-evident that after a person has chosen “to follow his eyes,” this in turn affects what happens in his heart, and this impact gives direction to the next thing he looks at, and so the cycle continues.

Following the Heart

Ecclesiastes, as well, found the verb t-u-r more appropriate to what the heart understands than what the eyes see (Eccles. 2:3): [4]   “I ventured [Hebrew tarti be-libbi, I followed my heart] to tempt my flesh with wine, and to grasp folly, while letting my mind [=heart] direct with wisdom.”

Now let us return to what we said at the outset and attempt to explain the behavior of the spies sent by Moses. Moses dispatched representatives of the people to the land of Canaan, charging them with the task of verifying certain specific facts.   He expected them to survey [Heb. verb t-u-r] the land, in the sense of involving their hearts in the mission; that what they would say upon returning would encourage the people in anticipation of entering the land. He did not expect them to make do merely with what their eyes saw and to hide behind the argument that they were bringing back an “objective report.”

Therefore Moses selected the leaders of the tribes, the most highly-respected personages, in the hope that they would not follow their eyes alone, but would let the wisdom of their hearts and emotions dictate their conclusions and report to the people, just as Joshua and Caleb did.   However they “followed their hearts” in the negative sense of the expression, as latur is used at the end of the parasha, and allowed the fear in their hearts to overcome the wisdom of their hearts, and of course their eyes perceived what their hearts told them.

This explanation is supported by Numbers 13:33:   “We saw the Nephilim there – the Anakites are part of the Nephilim – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”



Eyewitness Report

The first part of the verse is clear:   having encountered the Nephilim, they felt like grasshoppers.  The end, however, is not clear:  how did they know what they looked like in the eyes of the local inhabitants of the land?  It was simply that the fears and misgivings they had while carrying out their mission caused them “to see” how the enemy saw them—the fear in their hearts affected their sight.

The conclusion that follows from this report is clear:   true, the land is good, but we have no chance of conquering it because its inhabitants are so strong.   This conclusion resulted from the failings of the ten leaders of the people, who followed their hearts and directed their eyes to see the chosen land in a poor light.

We conclude with the words of the prophet Ezekiel (20:6), indicating the opposite conclusion regarding the same land, also using the verb t-u-r:

That same day I swore to them to take them out of the land of Egypt into a land flowing with milk and honey, a land which I had sought out [Heb. tarti] for them, the fairest of all lands.

Thus we see that the intention which underlies the action is a crucial factor in influencing the process and its outcome.  As we said, this indicates that the eyes follow the heart.   The ten leaders did not go to scout the land, but to follow their own hearts.


[1] Of the occurrences not in this week’s reading, one refers to the events of this parashah:   Deuteronomy 1:33.   Examples of other occurrences include:  Numbers 10:33, I Kings 10:15, Ezekiel 20:6, Job 39:8, Ecclesiastes 1:13, II Chronicles 9:14.

[2] This idea also appears in the Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 1.5, 3c:  “Rabbi Levi said:  the heart and the eyes are the agents of sin.”

[3] This is similar to the idea presented in the sayings of the Sages:  “Whither a man wishes to go, there he is led” (Makkot 10b).

[4] Indeed, in chapter 11:9 he advises the youngster, “Follow the desires of your heart and the glances of your eyes,” but this can be attributed to the nature of the book, full of internal contradictions.  Or perhaps the emphasis should be put on the end of the verse:   “but know well that G-d will call you to account for all such things,” in other words, restrain your pleasures so that they not become unruly, lest you be punished.