The idea that one might err by following after their eyes in lustful urge makes sense to me. But ‘following your heart’ is a key ingredient of self-actualization, maybe the essence of spiritual practice, and certainly common advice at any graduation.
This passage is traditionally read twice daily as part of the Shma, but originally appears at the end of our parsha, Shlach Lecha. When read in the context of the Shma, this potentially bothersome verse comes in isolation from the stories leading up to it, which, of course, cast a different light on it.
וְלֹֽא־תָתֻ֜רוּ אַחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם "Do not follow your heart and eyes," or more precisely, “Don’t go tur-ing after your heart and eyes.” The word latur is not a terribly common word in the Torah, but it does come up several times in this week’s parsha. After traversing the desert, the Israelites are approaching the Promised Land. Twelve spies, one from each tribe, are sent by Moshe ahead of the Israelites latur et ha’aretz, to scout out, to tour the land and “see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not?” The travel-weary Israelites are standing on the remarkable threshold of arriving home, and the spies are sent latur, to assess, what lies ahead of them.
And this is the spies’ report (Numbers 13:27-33, NRSV translation, modified):
27 And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28 Yet the people who live in the land are powerful, and the towns are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of Anak (lit. Giant) there. 29 The Amalekites live in the land of the Negev; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live by the sea, and along the Jordan.”
30 But Caleb [(one of the spies)] quieted the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.”
31 Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we.” 32 So they brought to the Israelites an unfavorable report of the land that they had spied out (taru), saying, “The land that we have gone through as spies (latur) is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. 33 There we saw the Nephilim – the Anakites come from the Nephilim; and in in our own eyes, we were as grasshoppers; that much more so in their eyes!”
27 וַיְסַפְּרוּ־לוֹ֙ וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ בָּ֕אנוּ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֣ר שְׁלַחְתָּ֑נוּ וְ֠גַם זָבַ֨ת חָלָ֥ב וּדְבַ֛שׁ הִ֖וא וְזֶה־פִּרְיָֽהּ׃
28 אֶ֚פֶס כִּֽי־עַ֣ז הָעָ֔ם הַיֹּשֵׁ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְהֶֽעָרִ֗ים בְּצֻר֤וֹת גְּדֹלֹת֙ מְאֹ֔ד וְגַם־יְלִדֵ֥י הָֽעֲנָ֖ק רָאִ֥ינוּ שָֽׁם׃
29 עֲמָלֵ֥ק יוֹשֵׁ֖ב בְּאֶ֣רֶץ הַנֶּ֑גֶב וְ֠הַֽחִתִּי וְהַיְבוּסִ֤י וְהָֽאֱמֹרִי֙ יוֹשֵׁ֣ב בָּהָ֔ר וְהַֽכְּנַעֲנִי֙ יֹשֵׁ֣ב עַל־הַיָּ֔ם וְעַ֖ל יַ֥ד הַיַּרְדֵּֽן׃
30 וַיַּ֧הַס כָּלֵ֛ב אֶת־הָעָ֖ם אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֗אמֶר עָלֹ֤ה נַעֲלֶה֙ וְיָרַ֣שְׁנוּ אֹתָ֔הּ כִּֽי־יָכ֥וֹל נוּכַ֖ל לָֽהּ׃
31 וְהָ֨אֲנָשִׁ֜ים אֲשֶׁר־עָל֤וּ עִמּוֹ֙ אָֽמְר֔וּ לֹ֥א נוּכַ֖ל לַעֲל֣וֹת אֶל־הָעָ֑ם כִּֽי־חָזָ֥ק ה֖וּא מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃
32 וַיּוֹצִ֜יאוּ דִּבַּ֤ת הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תָּר֣וּ אֹתָ֔הּ אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר הָאָ֡רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֩ עָבַ֨רְנוּ בָ֜הּ לָת֣וּר אֹתָ֗הּ אֶ֣רֶץ אֹכֶ֤לֶת יוֹשְׁבֶ֙יהָ֙ הִ֔וא וְכָל־הָעָ֛ם אֲשֶׁר־רָאִ֥ינוּ בְתוֹכָ֖הּ אַנְשֵׁ֥י מִדּֽוֹת׃
33 וְשָׁ֣ם רָאִ֗ינוּ אֶת־הַנְּפִילִ֛ים בְּנֵ֥י עֲנָ֖ק מִן־הַנְּפִלִ֑ים וַנְּהִ֤י בְעֵינֵ֙ינוּ֙ כַּֽחֲגָבִ֔ים וְכֵ֥ן הָיִ֖ינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶֽם׃
The spies acknowledge that the land is flowing with milk and honey. This is, indeed, the glorious land we’ve been approaching all this time. And at the same time, they are paralyzed by fear. Their turing led them to forgo the Promised Land. Theirs was a touring and exploring that brought attention to the worst possible outcomes even in the face of the most destiny-fulfilling opportunity.
Sometimes it is the way of our hearts to amplify our fear. We see an opportunity for greatness or wholeness and we trip over the place of “how small we are in our own eyes.” And so the Torah enjoins us: V'lo taturu acharei levavchem – “ do not follow your fear-prone heart in the way of the spies,” a reminder so important it merits being recited daily in the Shma. When you’re on the threshold of your next great thing, notice how much weight you’re giving to your what-if-ing mind (or heart). And know, or imagine, that if you go for it, there will likely be divine support to arrive in that Land of Milk and Honey.