Pure Thoughts – Correcting the Root of Evil

Parsha Halacha – Parshat Tzav

Parsha Halacha – Parshat Tzav

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One Hundred and Twenty-Seven, All Equal for Good[1]
The Torah portion of Tzav begins[1] with the laws of burning the olah (burnt offering) on the altar. According to our sages, the olah sacrifice was brought to atone[2] for impure thoughts. The Jerusalem Talmud[3] derives this from the verse,[4] וְהָֽעֹלָה֙ עַל־ר֣וּחֲכֶ֔ם הָי֖וֹ לֹ֣א תִֽהְיֶ֑ה, the simple translation of which is “But what enters your mind shall not come about.” This refers to the Jews wanting to be like the other nations of the world. The Jerusalem Talmud, however, interprets it[5] to mean “The olah is for your thoughts which should not have been.”
In addition, the verse says,[6] “When the… feasting days would be over, Job would… summon [his children], and offer up burnt-offerings early in the morning… according to the number of all of them, for Job said, ‘Perhaps my sons have sinned and blasphemed G-d in their hearts.’”
Why is Olah for Sinful Thoughts?
Several reasons are given as to why the olah is the appropriate sacrifice for having sinful thoughts.
·        The Sublime Mind
Rabbi Yaakov Skali[7] explains[8] that since thoughts come from the most sublime part of man, namely the mind, it is appropriate that the most sublime sacrifice (namely, the olah which is completely burned to G-d[9]) be offered as an atonement for this sin.
·        Known only to G-d
The Ramban explains[10] that because sinful thoughts are known only to G-d, it is appropriate to offer a sacrifice which is entirely burnt to G-d.
·        Getting to the Root of the Evil
The Meiri explains[11] that when a person sees the olah being burned entirely, he will realize that his sins must be completely uprooted and destroyed. This is only possible by correcting one’s thoughts.
Which Thoughts are Sinful?
The Me’iri lists[12] the following types of sinful thoughts (in ascending order of gravity) for which one needs atonement:
·        Planned to Sin but Decided Against It
If one decided to commit a sin and then decided against it, some opinions hold that he must repent for that (original) bad decision. As the Talmud says,[13] “Whoever slaughters his evil inclination (by overcoming his desire to sin despite having decided to so) and confesses (for that decision), the Torah considers it as if he honored G-d both in this world and the next,” as the verse says,[14] “זֹבֵ֥חַ תּוֹדָ֗ה יְכַ֫בְּדָ֥נְנִי , One who sacrifices a thanksgiving offering has honored Me.” This can be interpreted to mean, “One who offers a sacrifice by confessing his (intention to) sin has honored Me.” The implication of this Talmudic teaching is that one must repent for the mere decision to sin.
·        Planned to Sin and Was Prevented from Doing So
One who planned to sin and was unable to do so for reasons beyond his control must certainly repent for that thought. One who doesn’t repent will receive a greater punishment than one who decided on his own volition not to sin. For this reason, the Talmud says that the avnet (belt of the High Priest) would atone for thoughts of the heart since it was placed over the heart.[15] This means that when the people would see the belt on the Kohen Gadol’s heart, they would be reminded to repent for their sinful thoughts.
·        Another Opinion
Others say that one who decides to sin but doesn’t actually sin deserves no punishment at all (even if they didn’t teshuvah), as the Talmud in Kiddushin says,[16] “G-d does not consider a bad thought like an action.” Although the Talmud quoted above says that one who decided not to sin and changed his mind and confessed, (thus implying that a confession is required) this means that he repented and (in the context of that general repentance, he) confessed for other sins he had (previously) committed.
The earlier opinion which holds that deciding to sin is itself a sin understands the Talmud (in Kiddushin) to mean that if one decided to sin and was prevented from doing so, one is not punished for the action (which one had wanted to do), but one is punished for his or her negative thought.
·        One Who Thought He Was Sinning
One who did an action which he thought was a sin, but it turned out that it wasn’t (e.g., one who tried to eat ham but mistakenly ate kosher beef) needs forgiveness from G-d as this is considered a sin.[17]
·        Idolatrous Thoughts
The Talmud says[18] that having idolatrous thoughts is a sin. As the prophet Ezekiel said,[19] “In order to take hold of (i.e., punish) the people of the House of Israel in their heart, (i.e., for thoughts in their hearts) who have drawn away from Me with their idols, all of them.” Belief in G-d is mainly in the heart, thus one who decides to worship idols has rejected that belief and has sinned enormously.
·        Heretical Thoughts
The Rambam writes,[20] “The worship of false gods is not the only subject which we are forbidden to consider; rather, we are warned not to consider any thought which will cause us to uproot one of the fundamentals of the Torah. We should not turn our minds to these matters, think about them, or be drawn after the thoughts of our hearts.”
·        Lewd Thoughts
The Talmud says that lewd thoughts (i.e., of a sexual nature) are worse than the sin itself. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, if one commits an actual sin, he or she (most likely) will regret it and resolve to not sin again, whereas one who entertains lewd thoughts, may not consider them terrible and may not repent from them. As such, they are worse as they remain unresolved. Secondly, the mind is the most elevated aspect of a person. Thus if one were to sin with the body, he or she is contaminating one’s corporal aspect, while by thinking lewd thoughts, one contaminates one’s most elevated, spiritual aspect.
This can be compared to a Kohen who has two wives (in ancient times). One was the daughter of a Kohen and one was the daughter of a regular Israelite. If he gives his wives Terumah (holy priestly food) and they render it impure, he will be more upset with the one who is the daughter of a Kohen since she was (presumably) educated as a child as to how to treat Terumah respectfully.
Fundamental Aspect of the Religion
The Sefer HaChinuch writes that refraining from thinking heretical (and sinful) thoughts is a major foundation of the Jewish religion and will help prevent a person from sinning throughout his life. Negative thoughts are like the Av HaTumah (father of impurity) which “give birth” to negative actions which are like the secondary aspects of impurity. A man who dies without children leaves no memory in this world. So, too, if one refrains from negative thoughts, he will not commit actual sins.
Torah Sources
By keeping one’s mind clean of sinful thoughts, one fulfills the following Torah verses.
·        “And you shall not wander after your hearts.”[21]
·        “Guard your heart from all forbidden matters; [the blessing of] life will be the result of this.”[22]
·        “My son, give Me your heart, and let your eyes keep my ways.”[23]
May we merit that G-d “create for us a pure heart”[24] so that we can serve Him sincerely!
[1] Levit. Chapter 6
[2] Although the verse doesn’t explicitly state that the olah was brought to atone for a specific sin, it does say (Levit. 1:4) “and it will be accepted for him to atone for him.” Clearly then it brings atonement (note 33 in the Artscroll Mesorah Jerusalem Talmud, Yomah 56a).
The fact that the olah atones for sinful thoughts is the opinion of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Vayikra Rabbah 7:3). Rabbi Yishma’el however is of the opinion (Yoma 36a, see Rashi on Levit. 1:4) that the olah is brought to atone for not fulfilling a positive commandment and for transgressing a negative commandment which can be remedied by a positive commandment (and thus isn’t punishable with lashes). See Tosfot on Bava Batra 48a D.H. Yakriv (based on Zevachim 7b) that the olah only atones on light sins and not severe ones. See the Maharshal (there) that the atonement is only effective if the person repented beforehand. See note 36 on the Artscroll Jerusalem Talmud, ibid.
[3] Yomah 8:7 (56a)
[4] Ezekiel 20:32
[5] As explained by the Korban Ha’Eidah and the Penei Moshe
[6] Job 1:5
[7] A 14th-century student of the Rashba
[8] In his Torat HaMincha (parshat Tzav, derasha 37), printed by Machon Ahavat Shalom, Jerusalem, 2000
[9] Other sacrifices were eaten by the Kohanim and, in some cases, also by the owners.
[10] On Levit 1:4
[11] Chibur HaTeshuvah, Mamar 1, chapter 7.
[12] Ibid
[13] Sanhedrin, 43b
[14] Tehillim, 50:23
[15] Rabeinu Gershom (on Erkin) cites the Talmud (Zevachim 18b) that the belt was not worn in “a place of sweat (Ezekiel 44:18).” This means that it was worn just below the elbows (when ones arms hang down). This is the area of the heart.
[16] Kiddushin, 39b
[17] Nazir 23a (This one isn’t in the Me’iri’s list)
[18] Ibid
[19] Ezekiel 14:5
[20] Laws of Avodat Kochavim, 2:3
[21] Number 15:39
[22] Proverbs 4:23
[23] Ibid, 23:26
[24] Tehillim, 51:12
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!

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