Seeing is believing, we all know — except where it isn’t. Take the well-known optical illusion that displays two parallel lines of equal length with arrows at their ends. The line with the arrows pointing outward inevitably looks shorter than the identical line with arrows pointing inward.
More serious are the chasms of belief that divide democracies, including our own. People don’t just have differing solutions to the same set of problems. They see different sets of problems. But how we see the world depends a lot on our mental framing, a combination of rational thought, emotional conditioning, and whatever else goes into the complex part of us that we call “mind.”
Our case in point is the reconnaissance team dispatched by Moses to scout the Land of Israel. The scouts report back in a panic: “We saw giants there,” and by comparison, “We saw ourselves as grasshoppers.” Why did they see the ordinary men and women there as “giants”?
The answer comes via a commentary by the Malbim to the sedra’s end: the commandment to wear a tallit and to look at its tzitzit to remember God’s commandments, “lest you follow your heart and your eyes in lustful urge.” The Hebrew word for “follow” (tur) is the same as the verb “to scout” from the sedra’s opening. The warning at the end, therefore, says, in effect, that “focusing on the tzitzit may prevent your ‘following’ your heart and eyes the way the ‘scouts’ did.”
What, then, did the scouts do wrong?
The Malbim answers the question by observing that “heart” is the biblical term for “mind”; “eyes” are just raw sensual urges. The Torah puts “heart” before “eyes,” because “the eyes follow the mind”; it is the mind’s prior depiction that determines what the eyes choose to see. When we embezzle funds or engage in illicit sexual entanglement, for example, it is not because our eyes just naturally lead us there. If the mind already instructs us against such things, the eyes will not “see” those options.
We now understand that the scouts were misled by their minds, not their eyes. God had no need for scouts, Rashi observes. Israel was destined for victory no matter what. Moses dispatched the scouts, therefore, to find out what the Israelites thought, not what they saw. Their “minds,” he discovered, had yet to take seriously the reality of God. So their “eyes” saw defeat, not victory. They could equally well have concluded, “Sure, we were grasshopper-like compared to them, but knowing God is on our side, we saw ourselves as bigger than they were!”
As a country, we face this issue every day. If we believe in an utterly amoral universe, terrorism may be “seen” as an unbeatable network of fanatics. But if we decide in advance that we are in the right — that God is on our side, that is — we need not look like grasshoppers compared to giants. In our personal lives too, through disappointment and even despair, whether we prevail is a matter of mind, not just sight. What the world is like does matter; we cannot choose to “see” whatever we like. But what our eyes see is never more than external impressions; only reason, commitment, passion, and faith can tell us what the impressions
add up to.
Fringes are just fringes, if you are not ready to see them as tzitzit, reminders of God. Canaanites were just Canaanites, until the scouts decided to see them as giants. Poverty, child abuse, racism, gun violence — these are serious problems in America. Take a look: you cannot miss them. Whether we are helpless grasshoppers at their mercy or giants able to conquer them is a matter of mind. If our collective mind wills it,
we can do it.
Grasshoppers or giants? Despair or hope? Fear or resolve? Only the mind can tell the eyes which one of these it ought to see.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.