Shaya Cohen -


Thinking before we Act  

Like everything else, we can use the gifts we have been given for good or for ill.

Take, for example our eyes. The wrong way to use one’s eyes is to do what Chava did, and what people throughout history have done: use our eyes to fix on our desires.

And when the woman saw that the tree … was pleasant to the eyes … she took of its fruit, and ate.[1]


You shall not do after all the things that we do here this day, every man whatever is right in his own eyes.[2]


You seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, which incline you to go astray;[3]

On the other hand, the Torah tells us that the eyes can be used to assess, to judge and consider. And ultimately, our eyes allow us to acquire knowledge and understanding.

So even though Chavah does not use her eyes properly when she decides to eat the fruit, once she and Adam eat the fruit, “The eyes of them both were opened.”[4] They have gained knowledge of good and evil, of the way Hashem made the world!

Similarly, Hashem consistently makes things, and then “sees” whether they are good. Noach finds favor in G-d’s eyes. Avraham uses his eyes to scope the land around him. All of these are positive and constructive acts.

Indeed, as a prophylactic against being steered astray by our eyes, the Torah gives us the commandment of blue fringes:

And it shall be to you for a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them.[5]

It is right when eyes are used for knowledge, for assessment of what we have done, and to grow our knowledge of the world. This is the essence of learning. And it is wrong when we use our eyes merely to fix on the objects of our desire.

The commandment of tefillin establishes how we are supposed to use our eyes.

And it shall be for a sign upon your hand, and for frontlets between your eyes; for by strength of hand [6]

And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.[7]

Why in this order? Why the hands and then the eyes?

I think the answer is to be found in the classic Jewish response to the commandments of G-d: Naaseh v’Nishmah! “We will do, and then we will understand.” The torah is telling us that action comes first. Only after we act, do we look at our actions, and decide if they were, in fact, good or not.

If we do it the other way around, if we see and then we act, then we have done it wrong. This is what Chava and Adam did – she saw first, and then she acted. And it was backward!

The proof is found in the way that the Torah tells us that Hashem made the world. It does not say that G-d decided it would be good to have light, and so he made light. Instead, it tells us that G-d made light – and then decided that it was good. And then, with naaseh v’nishmah and with the order of the tefillin, the Torah is teaching us that we should act, and then we learn from what we have done.[8]

This, of course, is a very risky thing to do. If we act first, then we are certain to make mistakes! But the Torah does not seem to have a problem with mistakes, per sé. Where we fall down as people and as individuals is when we refuse to use our eyes to learn from our mistakes as we aim to grow upward.

In a similar approach, the Torah is at great pains to tell us the laws of purity and impurity – but it never tells us that it is a sin to become impure. I think the explanation for this is similar: since impurity is the result of an act of incomplete or failed creation, and we are encouraged to always try to create (both biologically and in many other ways), impurity is inevitable. So, then, are mistakes. G-d does not have a problem with the notion of mankind’s mistakes – after all, He made us inherently capable of error. But where Hashem is angry is when we refuse to consider our actions, use our eyes to assess and learn from what has happened, and then aim to do better next time.

For example, the Jewish people insist on Aharon making them the golden calf, the egel. He does it, and then he tells the Jewish people to sleep on it – that they should not do anything further until the next day. Hashem is not angry. He does not tell Moshe anything. He waits, and watches.

Had the Jewish people woke up the next day, realized they had made a mistake, and corrected it, then history would have been very different. But they did not: they doubled down, and this is what angered Hashem, as he tells Moshe.

They have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed to it, and said, These are your gods, O Israel, which have brought you out of the land of Egypt… Now therefore let me alone, that my anger may burn hot against them, and that I may consume them.[9]

We had a chance – we acted, which was proper enough, as long as we followed it with the proper use of our eyes. But we failed, not only not assessing whether the egel was really a good thing, but also by not following the previous action with a corrective one.

So the process of “act and assess” only works if we get the opportunity to do things again, to recursively grow both from when we make mistakes, and when we do not. But what the Torah is telling us is that, just as G-d does acts which he does not assess as “good” (such as separating the waters on the second day of creation), so, too, mankind can and will, with the best of intentions, do things that are not good.

After G-d makes something that is not good, he creates mankind, and we are given the mission to heal the rift between the waters above and below. If we are to emulate Hashem, then we must also act, assess, and then keep driving forward, trying always to grow new things, and repair any damage we have done in the past. That is what the process of teshuvah, return, is all about. We always work to improve ourselves, by looking and considering what has happened in the last year, and getting it right next time.

But nowhere does the Torah suggest that teshuvah should never be necessary, because we have not sinned. Nor does it suggest that teshuvah should not be necessary because we have refrained from acting in the first place!

It may be bad to chase whatever our eyes desire, and to do whatever is right in our own eyes. But it is even worse to be so afraid of making a mistake that we are unwilling to take risks. Many people are afraid of making decisions, are paralyzed by not being sure of what to do. The Torah is telling us: ACT – and then assess and grow. And then do it again, and again. This is the way to live our lives, from tefillin to the commandments as a whole. This is the way we improve the world.

  1. Gen. 3:5-6
  2. Dev. 12:8
  3. Bamidbar 15:39
  4. Gen. 3:7
  5. Bamidbar 15:39
  6. Ex. 13:16
  7. Dev. 6:8
  8. Indeed, this is what happens to Adam and Chavah: they acted and then they learned.
  9. Ex. 32:8, 10

Comments are welcome!

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