18 min read
Enjoy the pleasures of the physical world. But don't make materialism an end unto itself.
Life is filled with sensory stimulation: TV, radio, billboards, Internet. It's expertly designed to tap into our visceral drives. And the natural inclination is to pursue these stimuli relentlessly.
On the other hand, the Torah says: "Don't be misled by your heart and eyes" (Numbers 15:39). The Jewish idea is to follow logic, not whims. And precisely because the sensory pull is so strong and pervasive, it is a constant mitzvah – a constant challenge – to stay the proper course.
As the verse indicates, there are two aspects: heart and eyes. Let's begin by examining "Don't be misled by your heart."
Love God With Both Hearts
The verse literally says: "Don't be misled by your hearts (plural) and eyes." But does a person really have two hearts?
Yes. Life's moral struggle stems from two conflicting inclinations, the "two hearts" in every human being. Our divine soul, the Yetzer Tov, wants to do all the right things: to love humanity, seek justice, be altruistic, sensible, honorable and responsible. It desires to grow, achieve, and fulfill it's potential. Ultimately it seeks to emulate and connect with its infinite, eternal source – the Almighty.
Human beings also have a body ("animal soul") called the Yetzer Hara. It seeks satisfaction for the moment, to escape into the world of comfort. The body wants to eat, sleep, lust. It is destined for the grave.
We need to develop awareness of the struggle going on inside. Otherwise, what "feels good" will win out over what is objectively true and good. For example:
"Want" is for permanence. It is rooted in reality. "Desire" is temporal, for the moment, with little regard for future consequence.
That's why "don't be misled by your heart" is a constant mitzvah. You have to know that you're in a fight with your body. Every time you say, "I don't feel like it," you're losing the fight. Your body is heavy; it doesn't feel like moving.
The alarm clock goes off in the morning. You want to get out of bed and start your day. But you feel like hitting the snooze button and sleeping late. It's a tug of war.
Beware: The Yetzer Hara makes all kinds of promises. "Sleep a little more. Have a good meal. Relax." But it's an illusion. There's only one way to get true pleasure out of this world: Toughen up. Keep fighting.
How do you strengthen your willpower? Take pleasure in fighting. Because the harder you fight, the more reward you get. As the Sages say: "According to the pain is the reward."
Distinguish Between the Two Hearts
It can be very confusing to sort out which heart is talking at any one time.
Even as you're reading this, your soul is nudging you: "Pay attention – this will make me great!" But your body contradicts: "All this concentration is too painful, too much effort. I'm doing just fine the way I am!"
Every moment of life, in thousands of decisions, your two hearts clash. And only by taking on the battle for spirituality will you find lasting pleasure. How would you want to eulogize a loved one? Would you say, "Uncle Charlie drove a gorgeous Lexus, played golf on the world's finest courses, and dined at exquisite restaurants."
Of course not. You'll reach for something meaningful. "He helped other people. He was a good father and a kind person."
Everyone knows that you can spend your entire life following the body, going for illusions, chasing after a more expensive car or a fancier house. But in the end, it's bankrupt.
Don't be deluded. Be aware of the conflict between what you deep-down "want," and the desires that get in the way. On any decision, ask: "What does my soul want, versus what does my body want?" In the great game of life, whether you win or lose depends upon which voice is the loudest at the moment of decision.
This is the conflict between body and soul.
Car & Driver
If the body is so dangerous, how do we deal with it? The Torah (Deut. 6:5) says to love God with "both" hearts – the divine soul and the animal soul.
How does this work? God made a physical world not to frustrate us, but for us to enjoy. The Talmud says that if a person has the opportunity to taste a new fruit and refuses to do so, he will have to account for it in the World to Come.
Yet one of the hardest challenges is to know how much materialism is good for you, and how much is "too much."
Imagine this: A body is to the soul, as a car is to the driver. You have to maintain your car mechanically and fuel it with quality gasoline. If you abuse the car, it won't take you where you want to go. And to keep it looking good, you should periodically take it to the car wash and vacuum the interior, too.
But of course the car is not more important than the driver. Someone who neglects his family and instead spends endless hours waxing and coddling his car has obviously lost his sense of priority.
So too, with the body and soul. Sometimes you should indulge your body, so your soul can accomplish more. After you've completed a difficult project, for example, you might reward yourself with a meal at a fancy restaurant. Keep the body feeling good so the soul can tackle life's challenges – child-raising, career, social unrest.
Just don't indulge in physical pleasure for its own sake. Don't make materialism the goal of your existence. That is a violation of "don't be misled by your heart."
Elevating the Mundane
The name of the game is self-discipline, not oppression. Use a controlled amount, for the right reasons at the right times.
The more disciplined you are with your urges, the more you are able to enjoy them, because you become a master over them, and not vice versa.
The illusion of all urges is that the more you satisfy it, the more you are satisfied. But when it comes to urges, especially the sexual one, the more you feed it, the more it wants. Sex for its own sake is degrading, and because it is so powerful, it can destroy you. Indulging yourself for no higher purpose will just strengthen your lusts and make the battle harder.
When our hormones are running the show, we're no longer free. The first thing we must do is to decide that our mind is going to dictate our actions.
Don't take something that should be spiritual and turn it into an animal desire. The key is to uplift and elevate the mundane world. On Friday night, we raise the cup of wine and use it – not to get drunk – but to make Kiddush and sanctify the Sabbath day.
When used wisely, physical pleasure should be a stepping-stone to higher pleasures.
When engaging in any physical activity – eating, sleeping, talking – stop for a moment and ask yourself: Why am I doing this? What's the goal? Am I using it to dull reality, or will it energize me to accomplish higher things? Will it bring me closer to God, or further away?
When you have a cup of coffee, what will you do with that burst of energy?
Harness the body's passion to fuel the soul's purpose. Tap into the aggressiveness you have for ice cream or for making a million dollars – to do the right thing. The goal is to "feel" like doing what's right. Just as you would run for a pizza, use that same enthusiasm for spiritual pursuits. That's loving God with your animal soul – with both hearts.
Don't Abuse Your Good Inclination
There's a deeper dimension here. Since the verse says "don't go after your hearts (plural)," it also implies the possibility of being misled by your Yetzer Tov. But how could the Yetzer Tov be abused in this way?
Sometimes we can have a desire to do good, but in the end we make a mistake and create an even bigger problem. For example, the Torah commands us to give constructive criticism: "Admonish your neighbor, but don't bear a sin because of it" (Leviticus 19:17). The second half of the verse cautions us: When you're correcting someone, don't embarrass or put him down. If you have to criticize, don't let your Yetzer Tov say, "I'll really show this guy and straighten him out!" That's couching a transgression in the form of a mitzvah – abusing your Yetzer Tov.
The Bible records such a mistake. Chana and Penina were both wives of Elkana, yet Penina had children and Chana did not. Penina knew that Chana was righteous, and with taunting, she'd be inspired to pray for a child. Penina would say, for example, "Chana, look at the shoes I bought for my children. What are you buying for your children?"
The ploy worked, and Chana's prayers resulted in the birth of the prophet Samuel. Yet despite her good intentions, Penina was punished for causing emotional pain to Chana. The good intentions were nullified by poor execution.
"Don't be misled by your (good) heart" warns us to be careful of noble intentions that can sometimes hurt people.
Avoid Tempting Situations
Until now we're been focusing on "Don't stray after your heart." Now let's look at the second half of this mitzvah, "Don't stray after your eyes."
Western society places heavy emphasis on the visual. If it looks good, it must be good. The media bombards us with so many visual images, that we are often unaware of its effect. But be assured, it is luring us deeper and deeper into non-spiritual pursuits.
When we see these images, and fantasize how wonderful life could be "if I only had product X," we are deluding ourselves into thinking that materialism will satisfy our deepest desires. That is a violation of "Don't stray after your eyes."
So how do we avoid this trap?
The key is to stay out of tempting situations. If you were on a diet, you wouldn't bring chocolate cake into the house every day. You simply wouldn't want to expose yourself to this challenge.
So too, if you want to keep your eyes and mind where they belong, create a protective fence: Avoid temptation. Avoid compromising situations in the first place.
The Torah is teaching us something practical about human nature: Just because you know intellectually that something is wrong, doesn't guarantee that you'll follow through on that knowledge come crunch time.
Don't Try to be a Hero
Sometimes we have a tendency to get into tempting situations, with the idea that our self-discipline will prevent any mishap.
The story is told of a king who trained a cat to serve as a waiter. The king, in order to show off this incredible feat, invited all his ministers to a special banquet. The cat served the appetizer, the soup, and the entree with great aplomb. Everything went fine until a mouse ran by. The cat ran after the mouse and all the dishes came crashing down.
The lesson here is that no matter how much you try to master your body, you can't totally negate your Yetzer Hara. Your body's drives are instinctive and they tug at you constantly. A young man may be committed to high spiritual pursuits, but when a pretty girl walks by, he can be distracted.
This, incidentally, is one of the main reasons for the separation of men and women in a synagogue. The Torah understands that we're only human, and offers laws to help insure that the real you – your soul – stays in charge, by avoiding tempting situations.
You can avoid temptation by keeping your mind fully occupied with things that interest you. When your mind is immersed in creative and intellectual pursuits, you will be much less inclined to indulge a roving eye. "Watching the girls go by" is primarily the sign of an idle mind.
Furthermore, don't daydream or fantasize. Wasting your brainpower on illusions is counterproductive. We vicariously imagine the achievement, rather than going out there and actually doing something about it. And worse of all, it creates "fiction" that you will probably never be able to live up to.
His Will, Your Will
The Talmud says that God cries for two people: one who has the ability to learn Torah and doesn't, and one who can't learn Torah but does so anyway.
It's understandable why God cries for someone who has the ability to learn and doesn't – he's wasting his time. But why should God cry for someone who can't learn but does so anyway?
Someone who can't learn Torah is getting a message from the Almighty that he should be doing something else – e.g. helping the poor, visiting the sick, or reaching out to the unaffiliated. Yet what does this person do? He reasons, "I don't have time for all that – I've got to learn Torah!"
This person is making a mistake with his Yetzer Tov. Instead of investigating what the Almighty wants, he's following a personal desire – no less so than the person who should be learning but doesn't. He's wasting time, not listening to the Almighty!
Beyond this, in the desire to be good, we might even try to be "better than God." We devise our own standards of right and wrong, rather than following the Torah's instructions.
A classic example is King Saul, who was instructed by God to wipe out the entire nation of Amalek. In his desire to be "extra good," Saul chose to have mercy, and allowed Agag, the king of Amalek, to live. The consequence – Agag perpetuated the nation of Amalek, which continues to afflict the Jewish people until today.
The prophet says, Al titz'dak harbeh – "don't be too good." Whatever God says, that is the definition of good. Don't let your Yetzer Tov mislead you into thinking your own ideas are better.
A proper definition of "good" is the starting point of everything you do in life. Always ask yourself: Am I defining "good" based on the fast-food-hitech-Hollywood segment of society, or am I defining "good" as that which has deep meaning and makes a valuable contribution to increase God-consciousness in the world?
Our purpose in this world is to live with the reality of Asay ritzono kir'tzoncha – "make God's will, your will." When we do the will of God, something that is objectively meaningful and good for us, we're attaching ourselves to the source of all reality. What greater goal could there be?
So be careful and keep your definitions straight. If you don't work through the issues and clarify, you could end up 20 years down the road before realizing you bought a bad package.
Whenever you are in conflict, faced with a difficult decision, ask yourself one simple question: "What would God say?" Look to the Torah for guidelines how to interact with friends, family, and society. Because if the will of God is your will, there are no obstacles in your path. You cannot lose.
Humility Defeats Ego
What is the constant challenge of "Don't stray after your heart?" It is the test of ego. Human nature is to see ourselves as the center of everything. Underneath it all is ego: "My world, my accomplishments, my growth."
People think atheism is based on "evidence" of no God. But the Sages explain that atheism is simply the result of egotism. Rather than accept the existence of an Almighty power, a person denies it in order to pursue what they want. In a place of inflated ego, there is no room for God, as the Sages say: "Straying after your heart is a denial of God."
The way to uproot this feeling of self-importance is by working on humility. In Pirkei Avot, the Sages say:
Concentrate on three things and you will never sin:
The Sages continue:
"Where do you come from?" Mi'tipa srucha – "from a putrid drop" of semen, which rots easily. This focuses you on the fact that while you come from a putrid drop, you also have a soul. You have the opportunity to be like God Himself. Use that as inspiration to achieve greatness.
"Where are you going?" L'makom afar rima v'tolaya – "to a place of dirt and worms." Without the Almighty, you're just a body that will end up as worm food. You have a choice. Are you buying into transient pleasures that will end up in the dust? Or are you forging a connection to eternity?
"Before Whom will you give an accounting?" Lifnei Melech Malchay HaMelachim – "before the King of Kings," the Creator of the universe. If you follow the body's passions and ignore your spiritual side, how will you explain yourself when faced with the ultimate reality – when you give an accounting before God?
If you let your ego take over, you're falling into the trap of "Don't go after your heart and eyes." But if you use your mind to focus, you can win. Take 10 minutes every night to reflect on what life is about, what you need to accomplish, and how are you doing. You will become great.
Seven Steps to Humility
The classic book of Jewish ethics, "Duties of the Heart" (Chovot HaLevavot), explains that "humility is the ability to see reality." The humble person recognizes that ego is the Yetzer Hara's trap to distract him from reality. Therefore the humble person identifies with his soul, which is part of God – the only reality.
How do you acquire this clarity? "Duties of the Heart" presents seven steps.
Step 1: Ask yourself: Which part of me defines who I am? Am "I" my body? Am "I" my hands? Am "I" my heart?
If someone had his hand amputated, would his basic personality change? Of course not. If someone had a heart transplant, would he go through an identity crisis? Of course not.
The real "you" is not your body. You are your soul.
Step 2: Take your identity as a soul one step further. You are created in the image of God. Realize that the essence of your soul is eternally attached to the Almighty, Creator of this universe.
Step 3: Since your soul is part of God Himself, it is always seeking greatness. So if you're depressed, tired, etc., that's your body talking. It's not the real you. Where is the body going? Into the ground with the worms.
But your soul? That's part of God. Use this realization to energize your body. Don't identify with "I'm tired." Identify with "I'm destined for greatness."
Step 4: Realize that whenever you choose the body over the soul, you pull yourself down. How do you feel when you eat too much, sleep too late, or lose your temper? Disgusted!
How do you feel when you identify with your soul? Uplifted. "I did the right thing! I worked hard. I was responsible."
Identify with the Divine, and the world is yours.
Step 5: Appreciate the qualitative distance between the body and the soul.
The body is one small speck of humanity. You couldn't find your own body amongst the mass of 5 billion human beings. Beyond that, humanity is just a speck in the mass of creatures on this planet. And earth is just a speck in the solar system. And the solar system is just a speck of the universe.
So what's your body? Next to nothing.
By contrast, your soul is part of the Almighty God, Who encompasses and transcends the entire universe. Therefore, if you're part of God, you're part of everything.
If the choice is body or soul, which makes more sense to identify with?
Step 6: Recognize the difference between your limitations as a finite body, and the eternal nature of your soul. As physical beings, we are bound by time. The duration of human life is lived from minute to minute. That tiny slice of time is nothing in the course of humanity. And the history of humanity is nothing in the age of the universe.
But the Almighty is not bound by time. (In fact, He created time.) Your soul – part of the Almighty – is joined to that eternity.
Step 7: The greatest accomplishment in life is to identify with your soul. The biggest mistake is to identify with that speck of physical body that's destined to become food for worms.
God could have made robots, but He doesn't want that. He wants a real relationship – which means we have to choose it. Body versus soul. What will you do?
Make the right choice. A conscious choice. Don't get lost in a bag of potato chips.