The Perils of Following our Eyes

Our eyes get us into a lot of trouble. From Eve’s first glimpse of the forbidden fruit, to the moth-to-a-flame attraction that makes powerful men chase trophy women, our eyes have gotten us into trouble. Indeed, the Torah warns that, “Ye shall not do after all that we do here this day, every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes.” (Deut. 12:8) Our judgments are flawed when we use our eyes, but fail to actually think about what we see.

Dave Carter mentioned this in passing:

Ours is the generation, as President Reagan’s speechwriter Peter Robinson recently pointed out to me, that saw first-hand the fact that when you reduce the size and appetite of government, the economy grows; and when you have a strong military you can face down the acquisitive threats of monolithic totalitarian regimes. Those lessons should have resonated.

But those lessons have not resonated, at least not with a great many people. People see but do not learn. Think, for example, of people who get fed up with the taxes and regulation of their state, and then move to New Hampshire or Texas – but still vote like they did when they lived in Massachusetts or California. People see that socialism fails, but they don’t actually internalize this information.

This is a source on ongoing surprise to those of us who try to think about things. Isn’t it obvious that in Cuba and Venezuala and North Korea and the USSR… and everywhere else socialism and communism have been tried, socialism failed, and did so in catastrophically evil ways? It may be obvious to us, but it is not obvious to the leading intellectual lights at the New York Times or all the brilliant academics in universities across the world.

In the Torah, G-d sees that light (and much else besides) is “good.” G-d can see and judge and get it right based just on visual appearance. But G-d is G-d. You would expect His vision and judgment to be, well, quite good, indeed. Still, it is clearly a disappointment for Him to learn that man’s visual judgment is poor. Eve is attracted to the fruit, and that might not have been the right call.

But if their eyesight got them into trouble, it was hearing G-d moving about in the Garden afterward (Gen 3:8) that really got the attention of Adam and Eve. It was hearing, not seeing, that made them consider what they had done, think through the consequences of having followed after their eyes.

The revelation at Sinai has precisely the same problem: the people experienced Sinai, a singularly glorious event. And then, just days later, they decide to construct and worship a golden calf. The visual spectacle of Sinai does not sink in, does not deeply affect the people. Nor, for that matter, did the Exodus from Egypt, when the people complain that they will die of thirst just a few days later. The visual does not, somehow, change us.

A Torah scroll has no pictures, and the commandment is to hear it, to let the words rumble around in your head while you try to make sense of it all, letting your imaginations fill in the missing visual bits. Your eyes are left entirely out of the loop. It is words – not visions — that can change us.

Instead, people in the Torah – and in the world – learn by listening and internalizing, thinking things through. The Hebrew word is “Shomeah,” and it does not quite mean hearing, or listening, or obeying. It really means something closer to “hearing and considering.” Eyes lead us astray. But when we think about what we have heard, we are much more likely to learn from our own experience, as well as history in general.

In some sense, there is an accomplishment to be had by considering and chewing over words and thoughts, an actual investment of energies instead of merely passively absorbing images. Hearing challenges our minds in ways that seeing does not. But even though G-d repeatedly struggles to make people do it, it seems to me that the challenge remains for us anyway: it is easy for people to chase what they see. But we have to keep trying to find ways to get people to think.

Comments are welcome!