Victorious vision:Yom Kippur

What are "prying eyes?"

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Rabbanit Shira Smiles,

Young women study Torah
Young women study Torah
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Each year before Yom Kippur we explore one of the sins for which we confess and ask forgiveness in the al chet prayer. This year we will be discussing the sin of sikur ayin, which ArtScroll translates as "prying eyes". We will explore both this understanding of the words as well as other interpretations.

Each morning in our prayers we bless Hashem Who "opens the eyes of the blind", Who gives us the gift of sight. It is a gift we are meant to use wisely, as our eyes can easily lead us astray. In addition to leading us to forbidden activities, our eyes can become einayim ramot/haughty eyes, or tzorat ayin/narrow, stingy eyes. Even not using our eyes, pretending not to see others who need our help is a misuse of our eyes and a kind of chutzpah, a "slap" to Hashem Who gave us our senses to use for our good and for the good of others, and thus elevate everything we do for the glory of His Name.

             Rabbi Lugasi compares our eyes to a camera that records everything and imprints it deep into our brains even subconsciously so that even years down the road something may trigger the memory of that image. What we see can never be unseen, and years later the recalled image may still influence us and affect our actions.

            Observe the power of the eye. The entire course of human history was altered when Chava "saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes," writes Rabbi Weissblum in Heorat Derech. Just a little further along in human history, an entire generation became totally perverted and distanced from moral behavior so that Hashem saw fit to flood the world and destroy them. Our generation (according to mystical sources) is a reincarnation of the souls of the generation of the flood. Ironically, wherever we go we are "flooded" with immodest images, our eyes bombarded with obscenity, warns us Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz in Tiv Hatorah. We must guard and filter what our eyes see.

            When one guards one's eyes, he is blessed, for our eyes are meant to reflect holiness and bring us closer to Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Noach found favor in Hashem's eyes because his own eyes were a reflection of sanctity, writes Rabbi Zvi Mayer Silberberg in Sichot Hitchazkut. Today, if we guard our eyes from evil, we invoke the merit of Yosef Hatzadik who had the strength to avoid tremendous temptation by keeping the image of his righteous father before him.

            We may think that what one sees is a greater problem for men than for women. Not so, says Rabbi Pincus z"l. While a man may undoubtedly be influenced by what he sees and may even act upon the images, he does not identify with it. A woman, on the other hand, becomes emotionally involved and identifies with the characters in a movie or in a novel. She becomes that person, however briefly, and those traits become imprinted on her neshama.

            The Torah gives us an actual mitzvah that Rabbi Coopersmith, student of Rav Noach Weinberg"l, cites as the last of the six constant mitzvoth, "Thou shall not stray after your hearts and after your eyes." There are always improper things one may see along one's path. If one remains focused on his spiritual essence, one will not become distracted by these sights and be led astray. An analogy that Rabbi Berkovitz presents is the idea of a seeing eye dog trained to lead its master along the correct path while avoiding danger. An untrained dog (and we've seen them running down the street, pulling their masters behind them) can easily get its master to run into a telephone pole or into oncoming traffic. If we stay focused on our spiritual essence, we will not be distracted. While a child is distracted by every object and strays to observe it more closely, the parent stays focused on where they're going and calls the child back. So too must each of us stay focused on our spiritual goals and not get distracted by images and desires for physical pleasures.

            It is human nature to desire pleasure. But pleasure comes in many forms. Physical pleasure is generally instantaneous, "instant gratification", and is usually momentary and fleeting. Spiritual pleasure is long lasting and therefore requires more effort. Do we identify ourselves as a body with a soul, or as a soul surrounded by a body?  We don't have souls. We have bodies. We are souls."

            Along these lines, Rabbi Coopersmith points out the difference between ta'avah, base desires which are forbidden, and ta'anug, enjoyment which are not only permitted but often obligatory, as oneg Shabbat. With ta'anug, we take the physical pleasure, whether the Shabbat food or seeing a magnificent natural panorama, and elevating it by recognizing it and experiencing it on a spiritual plane, with a blessing for Hashem's gift. If we see ourselves as spiritual beings, that identity will be reflected in everything we do, from how we dress to how we raise our children. We need to impart to them the love of Yiddishkeit and indeed the pleasure we experience in its observance.

            Nevertheless, the order of that mitzvah seems strange. Shouldn't straying after our eyes precede straying after our hearts? Aren't the eyes leading us astray? Rabbi Scheinerman in Ohel Moshe cites Malbim, and explains that if your heart didn't have those desires and inclinations to begin with, you wouldn't even notice whatever temptations are along the way. Once it enters the heart, you seek out even more.

            Rabbi Wolbe z”l offers a unique perspective on our discussion. He posits that each of us has natural innate tendencies that draw us in certain directions, much as a magnet naturally points to due north. This explains the medrash, writes Rabbi Wolbe z”l, that tells us that Yaakov and Esau were already drawn to two different directions while still in utero. Certainly, they couldn't see where they were. Yet Yaakov would try to run out toward a Beit Medrash to learn Torah while Esau was already running to places of idol worship. Our mission, then, is to train ourselves to be drawn to the spiritual and holy rather than to the base and mundane.

            Now we can move on to our original translation of our al chet:,"For the sin... with prying eyes." Eyes seeing improper images is not the only thing eyes can do wrong. They can look where they don't belong and invade the privacy of others, writes Rabbi Pliskin. That's why the Israelite tents in the desert faced away from each other. But privacy extends to many other areas. Human beings are a curious species. We like to know what is happening in other people's lives and can be tempted not only to look into their windows, but to check out the mail on their desk as we pass, or pry into our friend's email. All this is forbidden. It is also important to ignore someone who finds himself in an embarrassing situation and allowing them their privacy and time to regain their composure.  (I can't help but notice that sakranut spelled two different ways as Hebrew homophones seem to be connected, prying and curiosity. Further the root of sikur with different vocalization also bears a strong resemblance to sheker/falsehood. CKS)

            Parallel to this, however, is the need to follow our eyes when we see someone or even something in need. The Torah admonishes us not to turn away from our poor neighbor, and even to help a beast when we see it struggling under its burden. Perhaps Hashem has put that situation in front of our eyes specifically to give us an opportunity to do some chesed, writes Rabbi Krizer. When we ignored those calls, we also sinned and need to ask forgiveness for not using our eyes in a positive way.

            Hashem sees everything, and He has given us eyes to see as well. Rabbi Rabinowitz urges us to use our eyes and recognize the messages Hashem is sending us. While I must guard my eyes not to accept the negative, may I learn to use my eyes to see opportunities to live a life of soul.