The Power of Vision
When a man will separate himself:…"Why was the section of the Nazir put next to the section of the Sotah? It comes to tell you that anyone who sees a sotah in her state of disgrace, should take upon himself to abstain from wine [by becoming a nazir], because wine leads to adultery." (Rashi, Bamidbar 6:2, sv.)
Rashi, based on the Gemara,(1) notes the juxtaposition of the passage of the sotah to the passage of the nazir. He explains that this comes to teach us that a person who sees the episode of the sotah should take on the nazirite oath in order to avoid the damaging effects of wine that caused the sotah to sin. The commentaries point out a difficulty in this Gemara: They ask that the seeing of the sotah's degradation in and of itself should be sufficient to motivate a person to be extra careful in avoiding the factors that caused her to sin. Why, then do they need to take on the nazirite oath in order to ensure that they would be careful from sinning in the future.(2)
Rav Yosef Leib Bloch(3) offers a fascinating answer to this question. He argues that seeing the sotah can actually have a deleterious effect on the onlookers. For at the same time that he is seeing the sotah undergo great disgrace, he is also coming face to face with the person who has allegedly committed a serious sin. The yetser hara (negative inclination) is so powerful that it can make him ignore the degradation that her sin caused her, and instead hone in on the sin that was committed and the lust that caused it. The following sad story proves this point: There was a man who was a hopeless drunkard. His son in desperation brought his father to see another drunk whilst that man was in a state of total degradation laid out on the street. However, instead of arousing the father to change, he actually went to the drunkard and asked him from where he attained his alcohol! Because of this powerful effect, the person who sees the sotah needs to take an extra undertaking to prevent himself from being drawn after the effects of sin.
It still needs to be understood how the mere vision of the sotah can have such a powerful negative effect. Rav Yosef Leib's son, Rav Elya Meir Bloch, explained by quoting the Gemara in Megilla that tells us that it is forbidden to look at the face of an evil man.(4) This is so serious because merely looking at something brings it into the soul of a person and makes a permanent imprint. The Ran says further that this imprint accompanies him for eternity.(5) Accordingly, seeing an evil man can negatively affect the spiritual level of a person.(6) This also works in a positive sense, whereby seeing holy people or things can have a strong positive effect on a person. This is demonstrated in the Gemara in Eruvin where Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi explains why he merited to be on a higher level that his contemporaries; the reason was that he once merited to see the back of the great Rebbe Meir. He adds that had he seen Rebbe Meir's face then he would have been even greater.(7) Another example of how what one sees changes the person is brought out based on the Rabbinic account that when Jacob saw Joseph after so long he commented that Joseph had not stumbled in looking at forbidden things. How did Jacob know that? The answer is that Jacob could see in Joseph's being that he had not sinned with his eyes - had he done so then Jacob would have seen the imprint of those visions in Joseph. This again proves that what one sees actually affects a person permanently.
The ramifications of Rav Bloch's idea are very pertinent to our own lives. The most obvious lesson is that guarding our eyes from forbidden visions is something of utmost importance to our level of holiness. A less apparent point is that even seeing things that are not necessarily forbidden can do great damage to one's spiritual well-being. One example is that bombardment of violent images in the secular world. Studies show that the average teenager has seen more than a thousand deaths on various media. Exposure to such unhealthy images certainly affects a person's sensitivity to violence. To end on a positive note, the power of vision can also be used to elevate us; the commentators teach us of a number of visions that elevate a person. These include looking at one's tzitzit, holy books, shuls and batei midrash, the shin on the head tefillin, and as said earlier, looking at tzaddikim.(8) May we merit to sanctify our eyes and thereby attain greater closeness to God.
1. Sotah, 2a.
2. See Mishulchan Hagavoa, Bamidbar, pp. 37-38.
3. Rosh Yeshiva of Telz.
4. Megilla, 28a.
5. Quoted in '"Vehaer Eineinu', p. 64.
6. Presumably teshuva can eradicate the effect on the soul of looking at forbidden things.
7. Eruvin, 13b.
8. Vehaer eineinu, pp. 72-73.