Guarding Our Eyes
Bilaam said: "He perceived no iniquity in Yaakov, and saw no perversity in Israel" (Bamidbar 23:21) - even if a Jew acts improperly, Hashem will not see any wrong - He will, so to speak, "look the other way", and therefore not see, because, as Bilaam explains, "Hashem his G-d is with him, and the friendship of the King is in him" (ibid.). Given this, it is impossible for anyone to curse and bring about harm to the Jewish nation. The only way to successfully curse the Jewish people is to cause Hashem to depart from among them. As Bilaam told Balak "the G-d of these Israelites hates promiscuity" (Sanhedrin 106a), therefore the way to overpower the Jewish nation is through immorality.
Regarding immorality, the Torah tells us "He will not see a shameful thing ('ervat davar') among you and turn away from behind you" (Devarim 23:15). Chazal comment that "this teaches us that illicit relations cause the Shchina to depart" (Sifri Devarim 258). Chazal went further in telling us that "ervat davar" can be read as "ervat dibur" (see Vayikra Rabba 24:7). This implies that even immodest and immoral speech can cause the Shchina to depart from the Jewish people, how much more so when speaking of immoral acts which are far worse than improper speech. This therefore is Bilaam's advice to Balak. The way to succeed in cursing the Jewish nation is to bring about an atmosphere of promiscuity so that "He will turn away from behind you".
There is no guarantee that having the nation transgress in other areas will bring about the departure of the Divine Presence, for perhaps Hashem will "perceive no iniquity in Yaakov". When there is immorality, however, the Shchina cannot remain. This is because promiscuity is the epitome of impurity, while the Shchina is pure holiness - the two cannot exist side by side. An atmosphere of promiscuity is one sure way to drive away any semblance of sanctity. When this happens, the door is open to bring about harm to the Jewish people.
We see this regarding Yoseph as well. Chazal tell us that when he was about to sin with the wife of Potiphar: "at that moment his father's image came and appeared to him through the window and said: 'Yoseph, your brothers will have their names inscribed upon the stones of the Ephod, and yours among theirs, is it your wish to have your name expunged from among theirs?'" (Sotah 36b). Yoseph immediately separated and did not sin. What is the connection between sinning with the wife of Potiphar and the stones of the Ephod? Someone involved in so impure an act as we are cannot be inscribed on something as holy as the Ephod - sanctity and impurity cannot coexist. (We can use this idea as proof for the opinion that "whoever claims that Reuven sinned is simply mistaken" (Shabbat55b). The fact that Reuven's name is inscribed on the Choshen stones serves as proof that he did not commit adultery with his father's wife as a simple reading of the pasuk would lead us to believe. In a general sense "whoever claims David sinned is simply mistaken" (ibid.) does not only imply a misunderstanding of the incident involving David and Batsheva. One who believes that David sinned is mistaken in his WHOLE APPROACH to the Torah. It cannot be that the author of the book of Tehillim, "the anointed one of the G-d of Yaakov, and the pleasing composer of the songs of Israel" (Shmuel II 23:1) can sin in such a grave manner. In fact the Rambam in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah (7:1) writes: "prophecy only resides on ... one who is strong in character, that his evil inclination cannot overpower him in anything in the world, rather he always overpowers his inclination". David's sin was a result of his not properly assessing the situation, not a base desire as a simple reading of the text would indicate. By the same token: "whoever claims that Reuven sinned is simply mistaken" is not only mistaken in his understanding of the incident involving Reuven and Bilha but in his understanding of the entire Torah. Such a person does not understand that holiness and impurity cannot exist side by side). Bilaam understands very well that holiness and impurity cannot co-exist and therefore advises Balak that the way to harm the Jewish people is through promiscuity. The Shchina in fact did depart and a terrible plague befell the people and persisted until Pinchas came along and put an end to it.
The Brit Mila is the seal that Hashem placed on our flesh. There were only three covenants made regarding the entire Torah, yet with the Brit Mila we find thirteen such covenants. When one impinges in any way on the general covenant, he can return to "business as usual". Of course, he is punished, for "whoever says Hashem is lax in the execution of justice, his life shall be outlawed" (Baba Kamma 50a), but the covenant remains as strong as it was before. Harming the seal of the covenant, however, invalidates or uproots the entire Brit.
The Chafetz Chaim explains this idea: Why is it that "one who is an apostate regarding the Shabbat is as if he is an apostate for the entire Torah" (Chullin 5a)? We can compare this to a storeowner whose daily presence in the store indicates to all that he is the owner. Even when the store is locked such as at night or even during the day when he is away on reserve duty, the sign hanging in the front testifies that he is still the owner and will return soon. Removal of the sign would indicate that this store is no longer under his ownership. Shabbat is the insignia of the covenant between us and Hashem. One who desecrates the Shabbat, G-d forbid, has removed the sign from the store and has thereby indicated intent to close up shop. One who denies the Shabbat has therefore denied the entire Torah (see Chafetz Chaim commentary on the Torah, Shmot 31:17). By the same token, the Brit Mila is the insignia of our covenant and impinging upon this insignia is an uprooting, G-d forbid, of the covenant between us and Hashem.
Harming this insignia is not only accomplished through the immoral act itself. The halacha tells us that one should rather die than commit even ancillary acts of "giluy arayot" (see Ramma Yoreh Deah 157:1). Furthermore, even for acts not considered ancillary to "giluy arayot" - acts that are not punishable with malkut for violation of "you shall not approach" (Vayikra 16:5), the halacha requires us to rather let a person die than instruct him to violate them. The Gemara cites as an example, a man whose attraction to a particular woman made him so sick that he was close to death. The doctors declared that the only thing that could save him would be if he had relations with the woman. The Sages ruled that he should rather die than commit this act. The Gemara goes on to explain that they did not even permit him to speak to her without looking at her (see Sanhedrin 75a). This, in fact, is the ruling of the Rambam: "We should rather let him die than instruct him to speak to her from behind the fence" (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 5:9). The Rambam is not telling us that he should elect to die rather than violate the act of speaking to her from behind a fence, but that the Beit Din should not instruct him to do so. Telling him to speak to this woman from behind the fence would lead to a general breakdown in morality (see Rambam ibid.).
In addition to the severity of the act in and of itself, there is an additional reason why we view an illicit relationship in such a severe manner - especially if it involves two Jewish people. When a person sins, even intentionally, he has only violated that particular prohibition. Regarding an illicit relationship, not only has he sinned but he has caused his partner to sin as well. In addition to the act itself, each party is now guilty of "velifnei iver lo titen michshol" "you shall not place a stumbling block before the blind" (Vayikra 19:14). There is much more - not only is each party guilty of "lifnei iver" for having caused the other party to commit an immoral act, they are each guilty of "lifnei iver" for having caused the other to violate "lifnei iver". They are then each guilty of a third count of "lifnei iver" for having caused the other to be guilty of the second count of "lifnei iver". This continues ad infinitum. We can apply this principle to any sin which requires the active participation of two people. To violate the Torah's usury laws requires a lender and a borrower. Neither can be found guilty of this infraction without the active participation of the other. Thus each one is guilty of "lifnei iver" for having caused the other to sin. The count continues with each party being guilty of "lifnei iver" for having caused the other to be guilty of "lifnei iver", for having caused the other to be guilty of a loan with interest (see Rambam Hilchot Malveh veLoveh 4:2). This too continues ad infinitum. We see that when speaking of a sin requiring the participation of two people there is no limit to how many sins have been committed. Even without taking this into account, an illicit relationship is a very severe infraction indeed.
It is true that there are certain prohibitions which are very difficult for us to protect ourselves from. Among them is "guarding the eyes" from immodest sights". The same may be said for improper thoughts. Nevertheless, when a person tries his best, even should he fail, when he repents Hashem "removes the first sin in the beginning" (Rosh Hashana 17a) and will forgive this iniquity. If he fails today, Hashem will forgive him. If he were to, G-d forbid, stumble again tomorrow and repent, Hashem will once again forgive him. If, however, he gives up on repenting saying "there is no way I can overcome my yetzer hara and what I look at today I will certainly look at tomorrow", and decides not to even attempt to protect himself from sin then he falls into the category of "one who denies one law" (Chullin 4b). Such a person "has already broken the yoke of his Master from above him and will then act as he sees fit" (Shaarei Tshuva Shaar 1, note 1). The Torah is no longer his guide, but he himself determines what is important and what is not. This person is "thereby adding the watered among the thirsty" (Devarim 29:18). Onkelos interprets this pasuk to mean "Hashem adds the unintentional sins to the intentional sins".
When man for his part tries his best not to sin, though he may stumble from time to time, he has not yet "broken the yoke of his Master". The repentance of such a person is accepted. The moment, however, he decides that a particular prohibition is too hard to observe and therefore he will not even make an attempt, then even if he unintentionally violates this act perhaps even due to extenuating circumstances, Hashem will find him guilty of this violation. Just as when it comes to something positive we say: "he that reviewed what he learned one hundred times cannot be compared to he that reviewed what he learned one hundred and one times" (Chagiga 9b), so too we cannot compare one who sinned one hundred times with one who sinned one hundred and one times. The fact that I stumbled one hundred times is not justification for stumbling that one hundred and first time. On the contrary, if I decide to be extra careful this time and successfully prevent myself from sinning, I will have provided a "tikkun" for all the previous times I have sinned. This refraining from sin will be a repentance for all the previous times when I did sin. Deciding ahead of time, however, that this prohibition does not concern me, is very severe indeed.
A woman dressed immodestly, has not only violated the prohibition of doing so, but is also guilty of "lifnei iver" by causing a man to gaze at her. The man who stared at her has violated "do not explore after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray" (Bamidbar 15:39). In addition, this man has violated "lifnei iver" by causing the woman to violate "lifnei iver". This process continues infinitely as we have mentioned previously. I once advised a man that his wife should cover her hair in order not to violate "lifnei iver". He responded that this is one area in particular which cannot effect a blind man! In spite of this, we must be very careful...
When may one look at a woman? When a "shidduch" is suggested he may look at her to see if he finds her appealing. Chazal after all tell us: "it is forbidden for a man to betroth a woman until he sees her" (Kiddushin 41a). (The story is told that the Vilna Gaon once had a blind student who was recognized as a Talmid Chacham. The Gr"a tried very hard to find him a "shidduch". He found a suitable match for him and while under the chuppa the Gr"a pointed out to the groom that he was required to see his wife prior to marrying her, as Chazal require. Suddenly the groom's eyes opened and he was able to see like everyone else). It is not good to marry a woman whom later he will find unappealing, it is for this reason that one may look at a woman when considering marriage, but for no other reason. Of course one must be extra careful to avoid all physical contact, for that is something that connotes "yehareg ve-al yaavor" - one should rather die than violate. I have been asked at times: a boy meets a girl and does not find anything undesirable in her. On the other hand, he does not feel particularly attracted towards her, should he go through with this "shidduch" or not. The answer to this question is that there is no need to be attracted to her, what is important is that he not find anything about her unappealing. Should he not be happy with her face, her eye or hair color, or find anything else about her appearance intolerable, then he certainly should not marry her. But if from that perspective everything is fine, there is no need to be attracted to her, that, b'ezrat Hashem, will grow throughout his married life, there is no need for it to exist beforehand.
How can we protect ourselves from looking at forbidden sights? One helpful suggestion is to contemplate Torah topics as opposed to thinking foolish thoughts. One who does so profits in two ways: firstly, he does not think of the nonsense, and secondly his mind is engrossed in Torah. The Mishna tells us: "da ... lifnei mi ata atid liten din vecheshbon" "know ... before whom you will give justification and reckoning" (Pirke Avot 3:1). What is the difference between "din" and "cheshbon"? The Gr"a offers two explanations: one is that the "din", judgment, is for the sin itself, while he must also provide a "cheshbon", reckoning, for the time that could have been spent involved in Mitzvot or learning Torah. Not to learn because one is sleeping, eating, or earning a living is justifiable. Man was created with those needs and one cannot fault him for not learning Torah during that time. What need, however, does he have to sin. The fact that he has sinned makes him accountable not only for the sin itself but for the Torah that could have been studied during that time as well. (Chazal remark on the pasuk: "Amalek came and battled Israel in Refidim" (Shmot 17:8) that the name Refidim comes from their having been weakened ("rifu") in their study of Torah (see Mechilta there). One commentary explains: where do we find that their study of Torah had weakened? When they complained to Moshe. The time spent complaining could have been spent in learning. Their Torah learning was therefore weakened and the result of this was "Amalek came and battled Israel").
We must realize that it is possible that once man is being held accountable for Mitzvot he did not perform, or for Torah he did not learn during the time he sinned, he may also be held accountable for the Torah and Mitzvot he was not involved with during periods in which it was justified (e.g. while eating or sleeping). One guilty of "bitul Torah" because he did not avail himself of an opportunity is also accountable for not learning due to circumstances that may have been beyond his control. One who is in the army, for example, may not be able to learn while eating, standing guard, or doing basic training. If, however, he has a few minutes in the evening to learn and does not do so, he is held accountable even for the time when he did not learn under duress. When one learns for the five minutes he has at night, he can claim that he did not learn the other times due to extenuating circumstances. If, however, he had the time but did not use it, he can no longer claim that he had to eat, stand guard, etc., his actions have proven that even when the opportunity existed he did not learn. We can therefore assume that he would not have learned during that time even had the opportunity come up, and we view that time as being wasted as well. How much more so when one does not learn because he is involved in sin! We see that when his mind is free from sin and engrossed in Torah, he profits many times over.
The other explanation offered by the Gr"a regarding "din vecheshbon" is that "din" is for the act itself - did he act within the realm of the halacha or not - was the Lulav he purchased kosher or was it not. The "cheshbon" pertains to how this particular act fits in with his overall lifestyle. One who is miserly in general cannot be faulted as much for purchasing a Lulav that is less "mehudar" for that is his nature. If, however, he freely spends his money on everything else, but he refuses to spend money on a nicer Lulav, for this he will have to give a "cheshbon". You do not mind spending large sums of money on everything else, why not on your Tefillin and Lulav?
Just as improper thoughts drive away holiness, involvement in Torah strengthens the holiness and gives a person a stronger bond to it. The further he distances himself from improper thoughts and thinks thoughts of holiness, the higher he can rise. To help us guard our eyes, the Torah provided us with the Mitzvah of Tzitzit - "do not explore after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray". Think of the Tzitzit, remind yourself of the Throne of Glory, remember that there is justice and a Judge. This will certainly help us to guard our eyes. As we mentioned before, having failed one hundred times does not justify stumbling that one hundred and first time. Having won out over his yetzer hara that one time reaps a tremendous profit. From a certain perspective, this provides a "tikkun" for all the previous improper acts. This is because an aveira is viewed as a lack - a zero, while a Mitzvah is viewed as something of substance. One Mitzvah - de facto is greater than one hundred zeroes. If one time you manage to overcome your thoughts, to look at the Tzitzit, to remember the Torah, to think thoughts of Torah rather than looking at inappropriate sights, this is worth far more than the one hundred times you failed.
The reward is even greater when taking into account that "one Mitzvah leads to another ... for the reward of a Mitzvah is a Mitzvah" (Pirke Avot 4:2). We are rewarded for performance of a Mitzvah with the opportunity to fulfill another Mitzvah. This is because each time we manage to overcome our yetzer hara, it will be that much easier to do so the next time. Just as "once a person commits a transgression and repeats it ... the deed becomes permissible to him" (Kiddushin 20a), and he will G-d forbid continue to founder, the opposite also applies: the stronger one fights against his inclinations, the easier it becomes to overpower them in the future. This applies to the Mitzvah we are speaking of now, as well as any other Mitzvah. The main point is not to give up, to remain strong, and not to be drawn into sinning.
The spies were sent to see the Land and they fell short. Why did they fail? The pasuk explains: "do not explore after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray". This does not mean that they should have gone with their eyes closed, after all they were instructed: "see the Land - how is it?" (Bamidbar 13:18). The eyes, however, should not have made the final decision. Their mistake was in not letting their minds determine matters. They saw giants and reported back "there are giants there is no way in which we can conquer the Land". What about Hashem? Did you stop and think for one moment that perhaps He is stronger than these giants? The problem is that we cannot see Hashem with our eyes, and it was their eyes that made the decision.
"Do not explore after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray", this is sound advice. Keep in mind that the eyes do not determine, then we will have no desire to look at inappropriate things. We should only want to look where we are permitted to. We must look at a potential "shidduch" to see if she is appropriate - her hair color, her face, etc. But to look for no justifiable reason - certainly not! Look in the Gemara instead! Have you already seen the entire Gemara? All the Rashi, Tosafot, and Pnei Yehoshua? There are many other important things you can spend your time looking at rather than being involved in nonsense.
This advice worked very well for previous generations. Today, however, they have invented a gadget whereby all the improprieties of "the street" can be viewed in your own home! There is no doubt that we are forbidden to look at this impure instrument as well. This means not even looking at things which are not inherently forbidden. Let us take a sporting event for example - the World Cup match between Costa Rica and Panama. Why should I care which of them wins? Of what difference is it to me? What is there then for me to look at? It is true that sports helps develop our bodies, but this only applies to when I am actively involved in it. To see whether the player from Costa Rica can kick better than the one from Panama is not going to help build up my body! This is a pure waste of time and one who watches this will certainly have to give a "din vecheshbon" for watching someone kicking a ball. This is similar to the joke said of the parsimonious Scotsman who promises his son, if you learn well throughout the year, I will take you to a special place to watch how people eat ice cream! What do I gain by watching one person or another kicking a ball?
Our eyes were given to us to look at other things, to be used as a means with which to rise higher and higher in Torah and Yirat Shamayim, to look at books of Torah and Mussar. We must use our eyes to help us contemplate the greatness of Hashem as well as the greatness of man, not the greatness of feet and footballs! This does not even take into account the waste of time. People speak of "killing time", the truth is that it is not the time they are killing but themselves. Life is comprised of many points in time, and each point in time that I "kill", it is as if I have killed a part of me. To "kill time" is to commit (partial) suicide. We must guard our time, we must utilize our eyes to learn Tanach, Mishna, and Gemara. After you have finished Shas with all the Rishonim and Achronim you can then contemplate what to use your eyes for. Until then, there are plenty ways to utilize your sight, it would be a shame not to take advantage of them. If we take care only to look at where we should, then Hashem for His part will fulfill for us "He perceived no iniquity in Yaakov, and saw no perversity in Israel, Hashem his G-d is with him, and the friendship of the King is in him", may this occur speedily in our day. Amen.