Seeing Is Believing

Seeing is believing! Is it? I’ll believe it when I see it. Really? Will you?

The late great mathematician, Martin Gardner, columnist for Scientific American magazine for 25 years developed a famous card illusion. The magician shuffles a deck of cards and has the subject select and memorize a card. After a sequence of seemingly random manipulations, the magician proclaims that he possesses the gift of telepathy and triumphantly produces the original card.

I cannot explain the trick here, but this effective illusion is based on Martin Gardner’s observation that every number in a card deck, from one to ten and including jack, queen, and king when spelled out in English contains either 3, 4, or 5 letters only. Yet an illusion it is, that contradicts what the members of the audience see with their own eyes. If seeing was believing, then the magician is not a skilled performer but indeed a thaumaturge capable of mental telepathy.

How about eyewitness testimony in a court of law? About 300 cases in the United States have been overturned because of incontrovertible DNA evidence. Over 75% of them had original convictions based on eyewitness testimony. It’s not that the witnesses who testified to what they’d seen intended to mislead the juries, it was that what they thought they saw simply wasn’t correct. We should never blindly assume that what our eyes see is the truth.

It is therefore as well that a Bible verse warns us of this danger:

And you shall not go astray after your hearts and after your eyes…
(Numbers 15:40)

But what do hearts have to do with this? We’re talking about how eyes are not always entirely trustworthy.

Throughout Biblical nomenclature, hearts never mean that vital organ in the human body. We don’t need the Bible for information about the body. God expects us to study anatomy and biology and discover for ourselves the physical nature of ourselves and of the world. The purpose of the Torah is to reveal spiritual reality which is almost impossible to discover for ourselves.

Whenever we read the word heart in the Bible, it refers to the seat of our emotions. This used to be more widely understood than it is today, which is why people used to say, “I love you with all my heart.” Sometimes, people who are expressing intense feelings, almost involuntarily, place a hand over their heart. It goes almost without saying that having emotions is part of being human. Acting on our emotions is something else entirely. Sadly, most of us can recognize that almost all our mistakes were made in the grip of emotions. Our emotions are very powerful motivators of our conduct.

We all prefer to believe that we mostly act because we think. In reality, we often act because we feel. That almost never ends well. The director and actor, Woody Allen famously explained his poor conduct by saying, “The heart wants what the heart wants.”

Eyes are very closely linked to emotions. We can be emotionally aroused far more by our eyes than by our ears. Thus, Numbers 15:40 warns us of the twin dangers of eyes and hearts. But why in the reverse order? Surely, first the eye sees and then the heart wants. The verse should surely have read, “And you shall not go astray after your eyes and after your hearts”?

Ancient Jewish wisdom reveals that when we allow our hearts to yearn uncontrollably, they do, and this sets up the eyes to seek. The remedy is to learn to exert some human will and control even over our hearts, our emotions. We are informed of this explicitly:

Give your heart to me, my son, and your eyes will desire my ways
(Proverbs 23:26)

Ever heard anyone say, “Well, I can’t help how I feel”? Not true! Yes, we can control our hearts. We really can regulate our feelings. What is more, doing so helps to ensure that our eyes are drawn in the right directions only. Our eyes will see just what our hearts really want to see.

There is no point in asking a boy besotted with infatuation for an inappropriate girl, “Can’t you see?” He can’t see because his feelings are already involved. One can’t ask an audience member entranced by the magician onstage, “Can’t you see how he’s doing it?” No, he cannot see because he wishes to be entertained and he is emotionally open to the prestidigitator’s devices. As any competent courtroom lawyer knows, the jury can be emotionally manipulated and, if effectively done, this will shape what they think witnesses think they saw.

Seeing is believing only if we understand how hearts and eyes work together.

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