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Home » Yitro

Yitro: Thought Sins

Submitted by on February 10, 2020 – 3:19 pmNo Comment | 1,555 views

Thought Sins? Did you ever imagine that the Torah legislates our thoughts? A human police force would never get away with that, but G-d, who made us, can and does.

The Ten Commandments were inscribed on two tablets, five on each. The commandments on the first tablet, belief in G-d, the prohibitions of idolatry and blasphemy, Shabbat observance, and honoring parents, address matters between us and G-d. The commandments on the second tablet, prohibitions of murder, adultery, theft, false testimony, and coveting, deal with matters of human interaction.[1]

It is fascinating that the first tablet begins with thought sins, progresses to speech sins, and concludes with action sins. The second tablet lists the commandments in reverse. It begins with actions sins, moves to speech sins, and concludes with action sins.[2] What is the message of this reversal?

There are two kinds of hypocrisies. There are those among us, who believe in G-d. They attend services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, defend Judaism in debates with their friends, and are staunch defenders of Israel. They think and speak Jewishly, but don’t always behave Jewishly. For example, they might not observe Shabbat or the kosher dietary laws.

In the social arena it is the opposite. There are those who are polite to a fault and always do the right thing. They treat others respectfully, behave honestly, and don’t disrespect their families. But internally, there are people that they can’t stand. They don’t share these feelings with others except for close friends and family, but internally, they think ill of these people and can’t find it in their hearts to respect them.

Of the two, which is better? The Ten Commandments tell us that neither is better. The fellow who believes in G-d must follow through in speech and action too. The fellow who behaves respectfully, must also treat that other well in word and thought.

There is something inherently disconcerting about a charlatan. It is better to have enemies who tell you what they think to your face than those who say one thing and mean another. When Joseph’s brothers were angry with him, the Torah tells us that they could not talk to him peacefully because they hated him.[3] Rashi, the famed biblical commentator, pointed out that this is a compliment to the brothers. Hating another is not good, but at least they were honest. They didn’t smile at him externally while hating him internally. That is offensive and preposterous.

From Heart to Action
There is another important point made by the commandments. We tend to follow a pattern. For a while, we might be able to keep our thoughts to ourselves, but eventually, our thoughts slip into our words and eventually into our actions.

It is like the letter ה in the Hebrew Alphabet. It has three lines, two vertical lines opposite each other, and a horizontal line above. The vertical line on the right represents thought. The horizontal line above represents speech, and the vertical line on the left represents action. The thought and speech lines are connected because our thoughts easily slip into our speech. The action line, however, is disconnected because we can often prevent our thoughts from influencing our behavior.

Nevertheless, the action line is part of the same letter. We can conceal what we think for a while, but eventually, it will seep out. It will eventually make its way to action.

A Chabad Yeshivah boy was once standing on a street corner in Manhattan offering to put on Teffilin with Jewish passerby. A religious man approached and berated the boy for standing, and leading prayer sessions, just beneath an advertisement of immodestly clad men and women. “Don’t you fear for your spiritual integrity,” asked the man? “no,” replied the boy. “I have been standing here for two hours and haven’t noticed the picture. You strode by in two seconds and noticed it immediately. Why is that?”

What is in the heart, finds its way to the eyes, and eventually to the mouth and the hands. We can’t keep it in for long.[4]

Sullying the Heart
Even if we are supremely disciplined and never allow our negative thoughts to slip into our words and actions, it is still wrong to think ill of another and of G-d. This is indicated by the fact that the thought commandments count for themselves and are separate from the speech and action commandments. Different subjects, different prohibitions, and different categories.

This tells us that even thinking sinful thoughts is spiritually damaging. In fact, the Talmud insists that sinful thoughts are more severe than sin itself.[5] And why? Because sinful behavior contaminates the body, but sinful thoughts contaminate the mind, and the mind is much more important than the body.

Reb Mendel was in prison in Soviet Russia where he met his good friend Reb Michel. “Michel,” he said, “tell me are you happy?” “How can I be happy,” replied Reb Michel, “they took away my teffilin, my talis, and everything else.” “Ah,” said Reb Mendel, “but they did not take your soul. If you give away your happiness you will let them have your soul.”

The mind is closer to the soul. When we think sinful thoughts, we contaminate our soul. This is especially true according to the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching that we are where our thoughts are.[6] If you are in Europe and your mind is in Israel, where is the real you? The answer is, in Israel. In the same vein, if your body is sinless, but your thoughts are sinful, the real you is sinful. That is why sinful thoughts are forbidden even if they don’t lead to action.

Change Your Thought
If you want someone to think something, the best way to assure that they think it, is to tell them not to think it. We can’t escape a thought by berating ourselves not to think it. The only way to escape a negative thought is by replacing it with a positive thought. So, the next time you feel ill disposed toward your neighbor or friend, run to the bookcase, pull out a book of Torah and fill your mind with something holy. That is assured to do the trick.

[1] Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 6:1. See also Nachmanidies on Exodus 20:13 that honoring parents honors G-d.

[2] Ibn Izra and Abarbanel on Exodus 20:13.

[3] Gensis 37:4.

[4] The Torah says, “do not stray after your hearts and your eyes.” The Talmud tells us that the eye sees and the heart desires.[4] A famous rabbi once asked, if that is the case, why does the Torah not place the word eyes before the word heart? And the Rabbi answered, because the eye only notices what the heart desires. If you don’t yearn for the temptation, you won’t notice it. But if you yearn for it in your heart, it will eventually come to your eyes, and from there to action.

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 29a.

[6] Kesser Shem Tov, 56.