World of the Sages: Guarding our eyes

Our sages tell us that King David sang God's praises at five different stages of his life.

Our sages tell us that King David sang God's praises at five different stages of his life (B. Berachot 10a). Before he was even born, as he developed in the womb of his mother, unborn David praised God, saying: "Let my soul bless God, and all my innards [bless] His holy name" (Psalms 103:1) - "my innards" referring to the womb where he dwelled. When he emerged from the womb and gazed at the wonders of the world, seeing the sun rise and set, the stars twinkling and the moon moving across the sky, newborn David sang: "Bless God, O His angels, warriors of strength who fulfill His word, hearkening the sound of His word; Bless God, O His hosts" (Psalms 103:20-21). As an infant nursing from his mother, David further praised God, saying: "Let my soul bless God, and forget not all His nurturing" (Psalms 103:2). Later in his life, when he perceived the downfall of the wicked, King David was moved to sing: "Let sinners cease from the earth, and let the wicked be no more; Let my soul bless God. Hallelujah!" (Psalms 104:35). And finally, as elderly David's end neared, he praised the day of death: "Let my soul bless God: God, my Master, You are very great, you have donned majesty and splendor" (Psalms 104:1). Though this verse hardly intimates the day of death, the continuation of the Psalm indicates that the theme is, indeed, human demise: "When You hide Your face they are dismayed, when You retrieve their spirit they perish and to their dust they return" (Psalms 104:29). Commentators add that King David did not necessarily compose these praises as he experienced the wonders. Rather, later in life he was divinely inspired to sing about his experiences in the womb, upon emerging into the world, as an infant and at later junctures in his life (Rashi, 11th century, France). Returning to the nursing baby David giving praise, the Talmud digresses to inquire about female anatomy. According to one commentator, the sages are trying to understand the difference between the human female anatomy that allows babies to nurse near the heart and the anatomy of other mammals, whose mammary glands are closer to their hindquarters (Rabbi Yosef Chaim, 19th-20th centuries, Baghdad). The Talmud offers two explanations for the female anatomy, both of which focus on the nursing child: So that the infant will not gaze on the sexual organs, or alternatively so the baby will not nurse from an unclean place. This "unclean place" may be referring to the digestive system. Though our sages hardly shy from any topic, perhaps this short interchange should not be read as an anatomical inquiry, but rather as an expression of what we should discourage our children from viewing. The receptive minds of youngsters should be kept pure from images that might sully their souls. Indeed, one scholar notes that people's level of holiness is determined by their sexual conduct and their eating habits (Gra, 18th century, Vilna). The Torah, in fact, juxtaposes the injunctions against illicit sexual relations with the command to be a holy nation (Leviticus 20:10-21 and 19:2. See also Vayikra Rabbah 24:6). Furthermore, the segment dealing with prohibited foods is concluded with the declaration that we are a holy nation (Deuteronomy 12:21). Our sages may be suggesting that from the earliest age, the two gauges of sanctity - sexual conduct and eating mores - should be cultivated positively. Infants, therefore, should be distanced from these vices during their first experience of this physical world, as they suckle nourishing milk from their mothers. Youthful impressions are often lasting impressions. Elsewhere in the Talmud, we hear about girsa d'yankuta - the enduring experience of youthful learning that stays with children even as they grow older (B. Shabbat 21b). One prominent halachist condemns the singing of lullabies adapted from church music, for "they inculcate a bad nature in the infant" (Rabbi Israel Meir HaKohen of Radin, 19th-20th centuries, Poland). One could argue that preventing children from viewing certain images is akin to raising them in an unrealistic bubble - a bubble that may burst with detrimental consequences. Putting blinders on children may be more dangerous than exposing youth to the myriad of stimuli of our society. Though this argument may have some currency, it is worthwhile considering both sides with care and finding a balance between limiting what our children see and exposing them to everything. Without referring to this dilemma, the Lubavitcher Rebbe (1902-1994, USA) suggested an interesting balance. On the one hand he advocated teachers not skipping difficult passages while teaching a text. He reasoned that it was better that the student encounter such issues in the classroom under the expert guidance of a qualified educator, rather than hear about them in whispered tones in the hallways. While advocating this broad-spectrum approach, the Lubavitcher Rebbe decried exposing children to non-kosher animals. To this day, Lubavitcher Hassidim do not have pictures or stuffed toys of non-kosher animals in their homes. While this approach may not resonate with everyone, it is indicative of the desire to find a balance between preparing our children for the complexities of life, while providing them with a safe, nurturing environment for spiritual growth. Until now we have explored this talmudic passage in terms of the stimuli to which we expose our children. There is another level that should be considered: Even as adults, images we see enter our subconscious. Indeed, the Torah exhorts us not to follow the temptations of our eyes (Numbers 15:39). This directive does not have an age cap; adults are also warned of the folly of following everything seen. To be sure, grown people do not have the same impressionable slate that children have, yet the images we see penetrate our souls, leaving marks that may be difficult to erase. Excising certain images and stimuli from the spectrum of our vision should not be viewed as a foolish attempt to live a sheltered existence, unconnected to the vicissitudes of our society. Guarding our eyes and the eyes of our children is a worthy endeavor to retain the purity of our souls. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.