By: Adin (Steinsaltz) Even-Yisrael
The Talmud (Yevamot 105b) records a discussion regarding whether one who prays should focus his attention on earth or Heaven. The issue is resolved by the suggestion that “A man who offers his prayers must direct his eyes below [to Earth] and his heart above [toward Heaven].”
Even though this debate has a literal, practical significance, it also reflects and encompasses a much broader insight. These three approaches have implications in many realms, including a general view about life and even macroeconomic vision.
Eyes And Heart To Heaven
Without going into subtle distinctions, most of the world’s religions — including Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism — suggest that both one’s heart and one’s eyes should be turned toward Heaven. They view the world in which we lead our physical lives as lowly and insignificant, a place that should engage us as little as possible. The goal is to reach the upper world.
The problems of our world are sometimes difficult to see: physical illness, psychological suffering, natural disasters and so much economic distress. How are the members of these religions to respond? All of them, for example, command that one give charity to the poor, but what is the motivation?
It is not to solve the problems of the poor, but because giving charity expedites one’s journey heavenward and assures a better place in Paradise. The Arabic word for charity, for example, is zakkat — “merit”; that is, giving charity buys points of merit for the World to Come.
This view crosses cultural boundaries. Thus, a country such as India, which has so many believers, also has appalling poverty, epidemics and other calamities. Because these people consider the important world to be the spiritual one, however, the suffering of the poor, the ill and the homeless is of little concern.
Eyes And Heart To The World
This is the modern Western conception, which is essentially materialistic. This worldview regards this world as the only one of consequence: physically, visually and emotionally. Its adherents not only live within the material world but covet it as their principal goal.
This approach has yielded many practical achievements: successful efforts to solve, or at least to improve, some of the world’s major problems. Much of humanity is healthier and better fed now than at any time since the Garden of Eden. And people are living longer — even if they don’t know what to do with their extended lives.
In this materialistic world, “taking stock” refers only to money, to financial credits and debits; everything else is irrelevant. Where profits and losses are what matter, apparent expressions of care for others merely disguise selfish interests. The welfare policy of the capitalistic world, for instance, staves off rebellion, giving the poor just enough that they will not attack the rich.
Similarly, highly developed countries give some aid to underdeveloped ones, but less than they can and less than is needed. The result: unconscionable suffering, yes, but also an adequate supply of low-cost labor.
Eyes To Earth, Heart To Heaven
The Talmud’s conclusion is that we turn our eyes to earth but our hearts to Heaven. Our eyes focus on earth, so that we see and deal with the world’s problems and pains. At the same time, however, we turn our hearts to Heaven, not for practical reasons but for our own betterment. God surely could have made a perfect, static world, but He did not. He created a dynamic world with lacunae of all kinds, lacunae that facilitate movement and change. God then entrusted this world to Man, a completely improbable being whose Divine soul rests in the body of a gorilla. He created Man with both the capacity for greatness and the susceptibility to sin. Then he made him a partner, albeit a very junior partner, in Creation. From that moment it became our responsibility to finish His work, to observe every aspect of our world, to take responsibility for its problems and, most of all, to care about one another.
God does not want us to divert our eyes from sickness and poverty. Rather He wants us to see them and act against them — not to earn “points” on a Heavenly slate, but because Heaven tells us that this is our job. We may not be able to do everything, but we must do something.
This concept of “Eyes to Earth, Heart to Heaven” connects Heaven and earth, dream and reality, eternal ideals and tangible actions. In this season of intensified prayer, we must go beyond merely contemplating this idea. It has to become a guiding principle in the way we conduct our lives, emotionally and practically. We must develop the ability to think and care about exalted heavenly subjects without neglecting their connection to reality, even when we cannot reach the heavenly ideal. When we do this in deed and in prayer, we are doing what we can to bring about a better year.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz or Even Yisrael is a teacher, philosopher, social critic and prolific author who has been hailed by Time magazine as a "once-in-a-millennium scholar." More than two million copies of his Steinsaltz Talmud (Random House) have been sold worldwide. He has been a resident scholar at both Yale and Princeton, and in 1988 was awarded the Israel Prize, the country's highest honor.