Bamidbar, 15:39: “And you will not explore after your hearts and after your eyes after which you stray.”
Sifri, Shelach: “Rebbe Yishmael says, ‘why does it say, ‘and you will not explore after your heart’? Because it says, ‘rejoice, young man in your youth [and go after the dictates of your heart] – [does this mean] in the straight way or any way that he wants? [Therefore, the Torah] comes to teach us, ‘do not explore after your heart.”

The verse at the end of the Torah Portion tells us not to explore after our hearts and eyes. The Sifri makes a very enigmatic statement about this verse – It states that one purpose of this verse is to clarify a verse in Kohelet1 that says “Rejoice young man in your youth and go after the dictates of your heart”. The Sifri continues that based on the verse in Kohelet alone, one would not know if the verse in Kohelet means that one can “Do whatever he wants” or if it means, “go on the straight path”. The verse in the Torah comes to clarify this question by telling the person not to explore after his heart.

This Sifri is difficult to understand: Firstly, what exactly is the mistaken assumption about the verse in Kohelet that the verse in the Torah is coming to put right? Secondly, how is the Torah verse correcting this wrong assumption?

The Netziv offers a fascinating interpretation of this Sifri2: He explains that the author of the Sifri is bothered by the expression “loh taturu” (you shall not stray) after your heart, instead of the more standard, “loh teilchu” (you should not go after). He explains that the root of the word used here is ‘latur’, and is the same root word as that which is used in the beginning of the Portion when Moshe instructs the spies ‘latur ha’aretz’ – to spy out the land. It has the connotation of going out and charting new paths. Why does the Torah specifically use this expression ‘don’t chart out new ways’? The answer is that the Sifri is coming to elucidate the correct understanding of the verse in Kohelet: One could easily be misled by the verse in Kohelet where Shlomo HaMelech tells a person to follow the dictates of his heart. This could mean that one should do whatever his heart desires, but the Torah comes to clarify that this is not Shlomo HaMelech’s message. Rather, he is telling a person to follow the dictates of heart, but within the context of Torah law and the valid ways of avodat Hashem (Divine Service).

The Netsiv then offers an example of this idea from a Gemara3. The Gemara discusses Amoraim who were particularly careful in specific Mitzvot such as Tzitsit which they observed on a far higher level than required by Jewish law. The Yosef Daat4 explains that the Gemara is teaching us that it is proper for people to find one Mitzva in which they want to specialize in: Each person has a specific purpose and role that is unique to him and his purpose in life is to fulfil that role. How can he know where to specialize? The Yosef Daat explains it is the area in which he feels a natural pull – this desire indicates where he should focus his efforts.

The Netsiv makes the same point and expands this idea to the broader areas of Divine Service, such as Torah learning, ‘avodah’ such as prayer, and kindness. Each person’s heart draws him to one of these areas more than the others, and this is where he should focus5. Moreover, there are many different, valid ways of expressing oneself within each specific area. For example, a person may love Torah learning, but there are numerous types of Torah learning and subjects within Torah, such as a Gemara, Jewish law and Jewish thought. And even within those categories there are many different approaches, such as learning Gemara b’iyun (in depth), bekiut (a faster form of learning), or something in between. The same applies with regard to kindness. Some might focus on helping people through raising money, others through working for an organization such as hatsala, and so on. Likewise, with regard to ‘avodah’, some relate to a contemplative approach, while others connect more with song.

Despite all this, one may still ask, that some people who would be considered ‘out-of-the-box’ in certain ways, may struggle with keeping Torah and at the same time, being able to fully express themselves. Rebetsin Gila Manolson wrote a book that demonstrates that this need not be the case. She writes accounts of eighteen ‘out of the box’ individuals, from all streams of Orthodox Judaism, who have successfully managed to express their individuality within the context of Torah Judaism. Included among the stories are a wilderness therapist, a black belt in karate, a zoological historian and an environmentalist. All of these can be channeled to being a form of avodat HaShem. For example, the Torah gives great stress to the importance of maintaining the environment, hence and environmentalist can help advance the Torah’s approach in that area.

Not everyone has the need or desire to choose such ‘out-of-the-box’ life paths, but the message we learn from the Netsiv is that each person has his own unique contribution that he can make to the world through his individual observance of the Torah.

NOTES

  1. Kohelet, 12:9.
  2. HeEmek Dvar, Bamidbar, 16:41.
  3. Shabbat, 118b.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Needless to say, one must be careful in all aspects of avodas HaShem, and not overemphasize one at the expense of properly fulfilling another. Here we are focusing on putting extra effort into one area while also observing all the others as well.