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Sunday, June 18, 2006

In which karma catches up with treppenwitz

[Note:  I don't do a lot of bible-thumping around here, mostly because treppenwitz's readership is extremely diverse and I don't want to exclude or offend anyone.  So when I do drag religion into a post you can rest assured it is applicable to everyone... regardless of their interest in theology.]

Anyone who has been reading along for any length of time has probably noticed that I occasionally poke gentle fun at regular commenters (meaning people who are not likely to take offense) when they misuse/misunderstand a word.  I did this to my sister this past week with a line borrowed from one of my favorite films; 'The Princess Bride':

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Well, karma being what it is, it was inevitable that I would discover over the weekend that a word I say at least twice a day doesn't even remotely mean what I thought it did. 

Yesterday we read in Parshat 'Shlach' about the spies who were sent by Moses to scout out the Land of Israel.  The Hebrew word used used here for 'scout' is ' וְיָתֻרוּ'  (V'yaturu).

[Interesting side note: The logo for the Israel Ministry of Tourism - Two men carrying a pole between them on which hangs a huge bunch of grapes - is a literal depiction of two of these 'spies' returning to show off the impressive fruit of the land. What the logo doesn't depict is how these spies went on to say, 'Um, yeah... the fruit is huge, but so are the people so don't go there!']

Anyway, this same word that translates as 'scout' at the beginning of the reading makes another appearance towards the end of the parsha where the reason for wearing ritual fringes on our four cornered garments is explained:

וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר-אַתֶּם זֹנִים, אַחֲרֵיהֶם

Literally,  you should look at these fringes and be reminded of all the commandments... and therefore "You should not seek/scout out after your heart and after your eyes".  Literally it is seems to be saying 'look at the fringes... not at something that is likely to tempt you to go astray'.

This last bit about not 'seeking out/scouting' is said twice a day by observant Jews as part of the morning and evening 'Shma' prayer.  In this context I had always assumed that the word for 'seek out/scout' literally meant to actively 'look', and that it was talking about the very human trait of seeing something forbidden and then giving in to temptation and running after it wholeheartedly.

But Friday evening a friend pointed out to me that I had unconsciously reversed the order of the words.  The Torah says 'heart' and 'eyes'... not 'eyes' and 'heart'.

I had indeed mentally revered the two words because it made no sense to run after something that first appears in your heart and which is then seen with the eyes!

Then my friend pointed out a tendency that we all possess (especially we bloggers), and it all began to make perfect sense.

This 'scouting' or 'seeking out' mentioned in the end of the parsha was not a physical act, but rather the mental act of creating an agenda... of prejudging a person or event in one's heart before seeing it with ones own eyes.

I look at my own archives and at the writing of many of the bloggers and journalers around the Jblogosphere and I see that we all do this.  A lot.  We all start with a very carefully crafted agenda/worldview in our hearts and only then do we approach events we see unfolding in the news.

For those who think that religion and science are mutually exclusive domains, it is worth noting that both G-d and science seem to demand the same extremely sound methodology:  Observe first... hypothesize and draw conclusions second.

I need to do more of that... what about you?

A huge word of thanks to Dave over at Balashon (a great Hebrew lexicography resource blog written in English) for providing the sources in such an accessible format.


Posted by David Bogner on June 18, 2006 | Permalink


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Thanks for the plug, but I should point out that my quotes of the Biblical text were from Mechon-Mamre:


Also, to continue your thought a bit further, that was the sin of the spies as well. They also followed their heart before scouting with their eyes (this idea is more developed here:

http://www.shemayisrael.com/rabbiforsythe/shalombayis/heart.htm )

Posted by: Dave (Balashon) | Jun 18, 2006 12:27:30 PM

Ahh, gramatical soul searching! Good stuff.

Posted by: David Linn | Jun 18, 2006 4:02:28 PM

A very good thought.
I was actually thinking of writing up a very judgemental post today myself but your post has me stopping to think about if that's fair.

Posted by: Shifra | Jun 18, 2006 5:09:28 PM

Oh and as for misunderstanding words - I think your "BEE-FROLL" post was the first one I ever read here!
Still hillarious.

Posted by: Shifra | Jun 18, 2006 5:11:10 PM

Hmm... but don't we need some kind of an agenda to know which line of observation to pursue?

Posted by: Irina | Jun 18, 2006 5:41:11 PM

"Observe first... hypothesize and draw conclusions second."

Good point. It's a struggle for some passionate people . . . yeah, me. But I need to keep it in mind.

Posted by: Tim | Jun 18, 2006 5:42:24 PM

"We all start with a very carefully crafted agenda/worldview in our hearts and only then do we approach events we see unfolding in the news."
Trepp, why is this a bad thing?

Posted by: cruisin-mom | Jun 18, 2006 6:35:52 PM

Well, wouldn't you say that in order to observe first, you have to direct yourself into the state of observing. If that's the case then you start with a mission, usually a mission as to what you want to observe. Even in science, you never observe first. You are observing something so that you can use it for what you want to prove.

There is never a scientist who just starts observing random things hoping that it brings him to a good hypothesis. It's clearly the other way around.

Either way, nice message.

Posted by: Seth | Jun 18, 2006 9:53:57 PM

Dave... You're too modest.

David Linn... This kind of thing is very out of character for me, so don't get used to it. :-)

Shifra... Don't let me hold you back. :-)

Irina... Uh, no. Think about all the things that infuriate you when you do your reading around the blogosphere. My bet is that most of those writers had access to the same information you did but chose to bend the facts to fit their preconceived ideas.

Tim... Yup, that and trying to get high speed Internet access. ;-) Seriously, I haven't seen you struggling too much with this issue.

Cruisin' Mom... Because events and facts should be able to stand on their own. If they need 'spin' to make them fit comfortably then there's a problem.

Seth... Of course. But being an honest observer is difficult to do if you are only looking for certain causes, effects and results. To use a political example, if you open the newspaper with the idea that religious settlers are violent, messianic nutjobs then you will see even one small picture of a bearded settler arguing with a magavnik as proof of your hypothesis. By the same token, if you think all the teens in Tel Aviv are popping E and having sex in night clubs every night then even one article about a teen overdose or sex crime will confirm your beliefs. In both cases the starting assumption is dead wrong and actually applies to such a small group as to be statistically insignificant. But because we allow ourselves the luxury of shedding scientific methodology when reading the news (and in our case, writing about it), our results are dead wrong most of the time.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jun 18, 2006 9:54:46 PM

You know what they say about first impressions.

I'm telling all my friends: If you read one blog about grammatical soul searching this summer, you must read Treppenwitz.

Posted by: David Linn | Jun 19, 2006 6:45:07 AM

But the heart is a carrier of such faults... wouldn't it be more appropriate to refer to the mind instead?

Posted by: pk | Jun 19, 2006 11:41:06 AM

Preconcieved agendas seem to sum up very well what most of us tend to do. For some reason reporters covering Israel seem to be especially afflicted.

Interesting that the Ministry of Tourism uses the spies. Wasn't it the spies that kept Israel from entering the Promised Land for 40 more years?

In fact, if I remember correctly, the last vestigages of a life of slavery had to disappear before the new generation could feel with all their heart the Promised Land.

Posted by: seawitch | Jun 19, 2006 3:18:43 PM

Isn't it a goal of Bhuddism to eliminate desire?

Posted by: lisoosh | Jun 19, 2006 4:56:59 PM

Trep: More recently, I love the slogan adopted by the Ministry of Tourism:

"Tova HaAretz M'od M'od" -- "The Land is Very, Very Good"

Posted by: Jameel @ The Muqata | Jun 19, 2006 6:18:51 PM

"Observe first... hypothesize and draw conclusions second."

In all the discussions I have with my daughter about religion, morality, opinion, politics, etc. the only "absolute" I try to instill in her mind is that she should have an open mind and make her own decisions. Too many people believe whatever they were taught as children and their world view is colored by that "reality" for their entire lives.

Observe first. I like it.

Posted by: jg | Jun 19, 2006 7:51:57 PM

But really we can't start with a blank slate - no matter how hard we try. They best thing to do is to acknowledge that you don't have a blank slate, and then observe with this in mind.

Posted by: Seth | Jun 19, 2006 11:14:49 PM

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