Filtering Sensory Input – Shoftim 5782

D'var Torah | Deuteronomy

British philosophy of the eighteenth century was characterized by an ongoing dispute between the rationalists and the sentimentalists. Rationalists believed that human judgment and morality is mostly a function of reason. Sentimentalists held that human judgment and morality is mostly determined by the senses. In the first group we find thinkers like Ralph Cudworth and Samuel Clarke while in the second group David Hume is the best known. Interestingly, the position of the sentimentalists was already carved out by a sixteenth century Jewish mystic, undoubtedly unknown to the later British thinkers.


Rabbi Hayyim Vital was a crucial figure in preserving the teaching of Rabbi Isaac Luria who left no written works. Vital’s recollections were often cited by later authorities. Thus, Jerusalem born Rabbi Hayyin Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806) in one of his more than seventy books (Nahal Kedumim) mentions Vital’s commentary on Deuteronomy 16:18.


According to the Torah, judges and magistrates must be placed “in all your gates.” It is an odd locution. The Torah could just as well said “in all your cities.” The use of the word “gates” is too specific and unclear. Vital argues that the Torah is not talking about structural gates at the entrance to a city. The Torah is talking about portals for acquiring knowledge and making judgments, namely, the five senses. All people need to carefully filter the information acquired by the senses. In the language of the scriptural text, you must assign “judges” and “magistrates” to assess the worthiness of information acquired, protect from internalizing sensory data that comes from undesirable sources, and prevent harming others with what comes out of one’s mouth. In practical terms, do not listen to idle gossip. Do not taste forbidden foods. Do not speak vulgarly. Do not touch disgusting things.


When human beings succeed in controlling both what they absorb and how they react to what they absorb, they achieve a degree of spiritual perfection. As Vital puts it, they fulfill the words of the prophet (Isaiah 26:2): “Open the gates so that a righteous man may enter; a nation that keeps faith.”




Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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