Navigating by the longing of the heart

Rabbi Baron Dasberg is the Rabbi of OTS’s Ulpanat Oriya for Girls

דסברגWe are always on the lookout for a “compass”.

In a world of infinite options and unceasing dilemmas, we are in need of a moral compass that will guide us in our decision making and help point us in the direction of truth and sincerity. 

But the portion of Shelach-Lecha is somewhat challenging in this regard.  Seemingly, Moshe and the People of Israel do the right thing by sending out worthy men to go and inspect the Land and gather vital information before big decisions – which will affect the entire nation – are made.

However, we know all too well how the story ends.  And the message rings loud and clear: Divine instruction is a far more accurate compass than any human report or analysis.

The end of the portion takes us in a completely different direction:

The key word in the story of the spies is based on the Hebrew root ת.ו.ר [tet vav reish] denoting a wandering in search of something.  This root appears again at the end of the parsha in the following verse (Bemidbar 15, 39): “… so that you stray not [taturu] after your hearts and after your eyes…”.  The verse focuses on the individual, and cautions us about “the spies sent out by our own body” (i.e., our eyes), which can easily lead us astray, turning us away from God’s commandments. 

This is all the more challenging in our own times, when there are no prophets to guide us.  We sometimes get the feeling that “… they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east; they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it” (Amos 8, 12).  In other words, the word of the Lord has become elusive, another item on that long list of options and dilemmas.  If this be the case, how can we find the “compass” we seek?

One possibility is to follow our good reason and intellect.  Another – to follow our heart.  Oftentimes, these are the only tools at our disposal, and, interestingly, both are mentioned in the verse mentioned above: “… so that you stray not [taturu] after your hearts and after your eyes…”.  Our feelings and thoughts are, only too often, influenced by our lusts, our prejudices and other distractors – all of which cause the needle of the compass to deviate off course. 

Let’s mention another tool that can help us.

Rabbi Kook (following the example of R’ Chasdai Karakash) elaborates on human will, and says that it belongs to one of the deepest points of the soul, the part in man which connects him to God: “This is the point of good will, of clarity and holiness.  In this sense, man is likened to his own Creator, in the free will he possesses, and the boundless desire he has…” (Shemonah Kevatzim 3, 51).  Although we have no prophets in our times, our deepest wants and wills are still connected to the word of God. 

How, then, can we distinguish between profound wills and short-lived cravings?  How do we tell the difference between our deepest desires and social pressures or prejudices that shape our consciousness?

There are many answers to these questions, but I will expand on one.

During the first convention of the Association of the Lovers of the Hebraic Language [Chovevei Sefat Ever], which took place in Moscow in the month of Iyar 1917, Chaim Nachman Bialik wrote:

“There is a great force in the world, and it is called ‘longing’.  It is this force that gives man the ability to walk millions of miles; it is this force that paves roads in the desert and splits seas, enabling one to get a little closer to his beloved, or catch a glimpse of a dear face, smell a familiar scent, find comfort in an embrace…”.

What a beautiful description of the power of longing.  See how much effort we are willing to invest just for the sake of giving expression to a concealed point in our heart, an emotion lying for years on end in the depth of our being, waiting to simply be experienced. 

Bialik takes this idea further and talks of longing that also exists on the national level: 

“We do not know what mysterious hand it was that led us on the four-thousand-year-old winding path of history paved with trials and tribulations; a road oh so convoluted and bumpy.  And it was this mysterious hand that turned us into a symbol unto the nations.” 

The People of Israel long and yearn for the Land of Israel.  Even after thousands of years in exile, there is a feeling of longing in the heart of every Jew, even those who have never stepped foot in the Land.  It is a deeply embedded yearning.  It is an inherent will and want. 

The longing for the word of God, for the Torah, for the Land of Israel, for the People of Israel – all of these are the compass pointing the way to our most profound desires. 

God’s word should have been the guiding star of the Israelites in the desert, in much the same way that the longing for the resurrection of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel must serve as our compass today.  If only we could always navigate by the compass concealed deep inside of us. 


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