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Parshas Shlach

Where The Heart Leads

By Rabbi Label Lam

And you shall not stray after your heart and after your eyes. (Bamidbar 15:39)

In his typically incisive style the Kotzker Rebbe wonders why the verse does not tell us not to follow our “evil” hearts. He taught that not straying after the heart means to do Mitzvos out of a sense of duty. Even though a correct deed is done there may be a deep lack if it done based on one’s own sense of goodness that happens to be in agreement with the Torah. He will have been, according to the Kotzker as described in the verse, “And it will be that when he hears the words of this curse, he will bless himself in his heart saying, ‘Peace will be with me, though I walk as my heart sees fit.’” (Devarim 29:18)

What’s wrong with following one’s heart if it is good? According to Hallachah- Jewish Law one is not allowed to disagree with a parent except with the most respectful and diplomatic formula of speech. People are surprised to find out that it is also expressly forbidden to agree with one’s parents as well. What’s wrong with that? The Talmud intermittently uses a phrase when somebody is listed as being in agreement to a given point, “Implied by the fact that he agrees is that he disagreed” and it begins to search for the point of contention. Logically if one is allowed to agree to something he is also reserving the right to exercise veto power when things don’t line up with his thinking. That attitude when applied to a trusted parental authority implies more than a degree of arrogance. How dare I nod my head and say to a sage, “You’re right!” The credibility of his opinion is certainly not hanging on my approval. That’s chutzpah!

The same dynamic is at play in the words of the Navi- Prophet, “Slaughterers of men kiss calves.”(Hoshea 2:13) It may not be so appealing to kiss cows but how is it logically linked with a proclivity for murder?

When some are overly concerned about animals and their feelings a yellow flag is raised. Sure the Torah itself cautions us not to afflict or burden creatures of G-d unduly and unnecessarily. However when the laws of Shechita ­ritual slaughter are singled out for opposition due to concerns of cruelty our history has demonstrated that is only a matter of time before the other shoe hits the floor. What are the mechanics at play here?

There are a few steps. Firstly, the feelings of animals are equated with those of human beings. Lobsters are people too! It seems at first as though those who are excited about this have an extra measure of mercy and compassion in their blood and they are elevating their concern for all living things to the standard of their love for humanity. The second step reveals that they are less interested in the stringency of empathizing with animals as they are in the leniency of degrading selective parts of humanity. After all if vegetarians eat vegetables, what do humanitarians eat? Once humans and animals are equal then “these people” can be killed like sheep vermin or weeded away without a pang of conscience.

Sure feelings are real to the feeler but they do not rule. When feelings, even good feelings, alone are the final arbiter of personal or public policy then the door has been left open for a corruption of values. At first one equates his mind with what the Torah wants by nodding in agreement and then soon those subjective attitudes exercise their license to trump an opinion that is certainly superior to their own.

The logical extension of having made feelings so holy is that whoever makes the biggest noise or the messiest explosion must be feeling the most and perversely must also be right. Mighty passions make right! Right? We know that can’t be true but sadly that’s where the heart leads.

Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Label Lam and



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