In the world of sensory stimulation – sounds, smells and images – eyes are our primary interface with the world. Eyesight accounts for 80% of what we learn and 80% of our memories.
We need to choose our images wisely, as the Torah exhorts: "Don't stray after your heart and eyes" (Numbers 15:39).1 We see a bright, attractive image and may be tempted – "misled by our eyes" – to choose a fleeting pleasure. In the Garden of Eden, Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge because "she saw it was good."2
Society places heavy emphasis on the visual. "If it looks good, it must be good." Everything from advertising to the experience of eating is enhanced by visual elements of color and design. Precisely because the sensory pull is so strong and pervasive, it is a constant challenge to stay the proper course. Especially in today's saturated media environment, where it's nearly impossible to steer clear of provocative images, we have endless opportunities to work hard at guarding our eyes – one of the Six Constant Mitzvot.
Day in and day out, what we see becomes the reality of our experience.3 One photo of a young Syrian victim can generate more attention than thousands of news reports. As the Talmud4 says: Aino domeh re'iyah l'shmiya – the power of seeing is incomparable to the power of hearing.
We see this dynamic at Mount Sinai, where God informed Moses that the Jews built a Golden Calf. Yet only after going down the mountain to "see for himself" did Moses absorb the emotional reality and smash the Tablets.
Any negative image – e.g. a violent or debasing act, whether live or digital – becomes imbedded in our psyche. By the end of elementary school, the average American child has seen 800 murders and 100,000 acts of violence.5 This repeated exposure to humans in undignified positions can lead us to view others as less than "the image of God."
Just as the Torah prescribes the laws of kosher food, training us to carefully examine what we choose to consume,6 so too we must be vigilant in visual consumption of TV, films and other media.
It is far easier to keep negativity away in the first place than to fight it head-on. That's why it's important to draw a red line: a protective boundary that distances us from images – websites or films with violence and exploitation – that fall below our personal standard. Before consuming, ask yourself: Am I choosing high or low? Do I need this in my life? Nobody has the right to fill our minds. We have the power to choose what to consume.
This is true even if "everyone is doing it." The Jewish people are praised for being "stiff-necked," stubbornly maintaining ethical standards despite popular trends.7
This battle has never been more fierce. Every day the sophisticated trillion-dollar marketing engine bombards us with messages that speak to base instincts. Walking through a shopping mall today is fraught with more challenges to eyesight than a lifetime of our great-grandparents in Europe.
The key is to craft an environment that removes temptation in the first place. If you were on a diet, you wouldn't bring chocolate cake into the house and expose yourself to challenge. If you have two possible paths to a destination, you'd avoid the path with dangerous fumes. So too, choose the path with "cleaner images."8
Humans are social beings, predisposed to conforming to norms of behavior. To stand against prevailing winds, we face a difficult "double-whammy": society's general decline in morality, combined with the anonymity and instant Internet access that spreads ideas with ever-increasing speed.9 Before we know what happened, we're down the digital rabbit-hole.
Create safeguards to insure the real you – your soul – stays in charge:
- Filter: Install a strong Internet filter – to protect from even unintentional exposure.
- Public: Keep computers in a well-trafficked area. The fear of "getting caught" is a strong deterrent.
- Accountability: Sign up for software like Webchaver that sends your weblogs to an appointed party.
- Consequences: Set up a system of "reward and punishment" – where a bad choice results in a predetermined monetary fine, and victories are rewarded with healthy treats.
- Divine Assistance: As always, pray that God strengthen our efforts to withstand temptation.10
First Look Free
For men especially, "Don't stray after your eyes" exhorts us to avoid sexualized images that trigger less-than-holy thoughts. This problem is widely documented: 56% of divorces involve "obsessive" use of inappropriate websites.11
Viewing inappropriate images:
- is a degradation of women
- feeds a "fantasy escape" into a temporal world of counterfeit pleasure
- creates an inappropriate emotional connection with other women12
When we're out and about or surfing the web, our "default" mode is to look around. Make a decision beforehand to keep your eyes under control.13
Even still, we may unintentionally see something inappropriate. Hence the expression: “The first look is free."
Mike is married and wants to strengthen his focus on that relationship by not looking at other women. One day Mike is walking down the street and notices an erotic image on a billboard – designed precisely to exploit Mike's male psyche.
This is Mike's moment of choice: take a second intentional look, or divert his eyes.14
One method of self-control is "purposeful distraction."15 Recall the famous marshmallow test where children delayed gratification by distracting themselves – singing or covering their eyes. Just as "out of sight, out of mind," so too anything within sight occupies your mind.
The human spirit abhors a vacuum, and will fill it with either positive or negative images and experiences. In a moment of challenge, try shifting your focus to another topic – like performing a complex math problem that requires full brainpower.
Because of its great depth, Torah study is a well-known antidote to challenging situations.16 Additionally, Torah's source in the higher worlds helps raise a person's focus above the transient pleasures of this world.
We may not always succeed, but even failure raises self-awareness that prevents future failures.17 Willpower is like a muscle: Exercising self-control builds long-term strength and stamina.18 Eventually, with study and the persistent practice, the mind can be trained to instinctually look away.
Window to the Soul
Every human being has a unique soul, evident nowhere more than the eyes: While fingerprints have 40 unique characteristics, the iris has 256!
Eyes convey a unique sense of warmth and emotion, the "window to the soul."19 Looking deeply into another's eyes produces bonding, unity and connection. That's why dishonest people tend to avoid eye contact – for fear of being "exposed." And when two people agree, they see "eye to eye."
Our spiritual health depends on controlling our eyes and using them for positive purposes only. One hundred years ago, the saintly Chafetz Chaim raised awareness for the imperative to "guard your tongue." Today, with the explosion of digital images (and Virtual Reality coming soon), the time is ripe to strengthen the constant commitment to "guard your eyes."
For further study:
- Positive Vision by Rabbi Avrohom Neuberger (ArtScroll)
- Guard Your Eyes website
- "Windows of the Soul" – Salant Foundation's 30-day program
Thanks to Duvid Chaim of the 2b1 Institute for some ideas expressed in this article.
About this Series
Aish.com is proud to present the Harvey Hecker Character Development Series, with new modules every month. We'll begin by exploring the two basic traits of Kindness and Discipline. We'll then explore other key traits including Gratitude, Empathy and more.
The series is dedicated in memory of Harvey Hecker, the former President of Aish International, who believed that changing the world begins with ethics and integrity. Mr. Hecker was a master at calmly and appropriately dealing with others, especially amidst challenging situations. He gave freely of his time and wisdom, showing honor and humility to all. His mantra: "Strive to do the right thing." We hope this series will honor his memory.
1. Sefer HaChinuch – mitzvah 387
2. Genesis 3:6
3. see Rashi – Exodus 19:4
4. Rosh Hashana 25b
6. Researchers concur that religious observance positively impacts self-control. (New York Times – "For Good Self-Control, Try Getting Religious About It," Dec. 29, 2008)
7. Exodus 34:9 – commentary of Rabbi Chaim Paltiel
8. Talmud – Pesachim 26a
9. Positive Vision – Rabbi Avrohom Neuberger (ArtScroll)
10. Talmud – Yoma 69b
11. Dr. Jill Manning, Testimony to U.S. Senate, 2004
12. Maharal – Chidushei Agados – Nedarim 20. For married men, this constitutes "adultery of the eyes" (Midrash – Vayikra Rabba 23).
13. While refraining from any actions that appear "strange." (Rabbeinu Yona – Sefer HaYira)
14. The biblical Joseph is praised for controlling his eyes in Egypt (Genesis 49:22; Midrash – Bereishis Rabba 98). See also Isaiah 33:15 and Talmud – Makkos 24a.
15. Steipler Gaon – Kreina D'igrisa 15
16. Talmud – Kiddushin 30b
17. Steipler Gaon – Birkat Peretz – Bamidbar
18. Sefer HaChinuch – mitzvah 387
19. Beit Olamim – Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Chaver, 129b s.v. "Leis"; Imrei Pinchas – Rabbi Pinchas Koritzer "Shababt U'Mo'adim" 4:218