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Achieving Purity of Thought

At the beginning of parshat Tzav, the Torah relates Hashem’s command to the Kohanim concerning the laws of the korban “olah” (a sacrifice that was fully consumed on the altar): “Tzav et Aharon v’et banav laymor – zot torat ha’olah…relate the following instructions to Aaron and his descendants – this is the law of the burnt offering.” (Vayikra, 6:1-2).

Rashi picks up on the use of the word “tzav” rather than the more common “emor” or “daber,” and states that “tzav” connotes “zeruz,” or diligence. Why must the Kohanim be particularly diligent about the korban olah? Rashi explains that, according to the Tanna Rabbi Shimon, the korban olah represents a greater loss of income – “chisaron kis” – to kohanim than other korbanot since, with the korban olah, the kohanim only receive the hides, while with other korbanot, they receive both the hides and the meat (incidentally, the source for our modern day phrase “out-of-pocket” comes from the phrase “chisaron kis”).

As brought down in Parperei Torah, the Chiddushei Harim - Yitzchak Meir Alter, the first Rebbe of the Ger Hasidic dynasty – seeks to interpret the phrase “chisaron kis” metaphorically.

Rav Alter first notes that, as per the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 7:3), the korban olah is brought to atone for, among other things, sinful thoughts.

He then observes that the word “kis” in the phrase referenced by Rabbi Shimon - “chisaron kis” – can refer not only to a “pocket” but also to a “covering” – as in the word “kisui.”  

Asks Rav Alter, how do we perform sinful acts? We use our eyes, mouth, ears, hands or feet. To protect us from sinning with these limbs and organs, Hashem provided us with coverings or other mechanisms to thwart sin – the mouth is guarded by the lips and teeth (which block both sins emanating from the mouth like lashon hara, and those entering the mouth like non-kosher food); the eyes can be blocked by the eyelids; we can cover our ears; and we can cross our arms (in this vein, consider the message of the three wise monkeys – see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil – the Torah may well be a source for this concept as well).

But with respect to sinful thoughts, there is no covering – “kisui” - inside our heads that stops us from thinking improper thoughts. It is really up to us to try and control our thoughts so they become elevated, and not mired in impropriety.

According to Rav Alter, what Rabbi Shimon means to teach us when he states that diligence is required in connection with the korban olah because there is “chisaron kis” it is that we must be extra diligent when it comes to ensuring purity of thought since there is no “kisui” or “covering” to protect us as there is with respect to the limbs and organs that might perform sinful acts. Stated differently, it is not enough to merely refrain from sinful acts, but we must also strive to refrain from sinful thoughts as well.

Indeed, the Gemara (Yoma 29a) states that sinful thoughts are worse than sinful acts: Hirhurei aveirah kashim m’aveirah - sinful thoughts are worse than sin itself.

However, pointing in a seemingly opposite direction, we find in Kiddushin 40a: "machashava ra'ah ein hakadosh baruch hu metzarfa la'ma'aseh - Hashem does not deem the sinful thought an action." That is, Hashem only punishes sinful acts, but not sinful thoughts that do not result in a sinful act (the only exception being the sin of avoda zarah).

The question emerges – how do we reconcile the rule that Hashem does not punish sinful thoughts (absent sinful acts), with the requirement that an individual must bring a korban olah to atone for sinful thoughts?

I think the solution is that Hashem understands human frailty – we were created with a yetzer hara that often leads us to entertain sinful thoughts. However, as long as we don’t act upon our sinful thoughts Hashem will not hold us accountable. Indeed, if the sinful thought does not lead to sinful acts, whom have we hurt except ourselves? (as an aside, there is an interesting argument between the Maharsha and Meiri on the sugya referenced above from Gemara Kiddushin concerning whether an individual is punished for sinful thought where he is prevented from translating the sinful thought into action by "o'nes" - i.e., circumstances beyond his control. That is, does Hashem forgive sinful thought only where the individual cannot excise the thought, but by the force of his free will, would never actually translate the thought into sinful action even if presented with the opportunity to do so).

Yet sinful thought contains the seed for sinful actions, and may ultimately lead to sinful acts. Accordingly, sinful thoughts cannot be ignored. What is the Torah’s mechanism to ensure that our sinful thoughts do not ultimately result in sinful acts?

An answer can be found in the Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 95, The Obligation to Build the Holy Temple, where the Chinuch explains the purpose of the sacrifices as follows: “ikrei ha’levavot teluyin achar ha’peulot - [t]he essential emotions of a person’s heart are linked to the actions he performs.”

The Chinuch elaborates that the Torah’s philosophy is that when a person sins, he cannot be cleansed merely through verbal utterances (e.g., by stating “I have sinned and will sin no further.”). Instead, the purpose of korbanot is to compel the sinner to engage in a time-consuming and complex procedure that will reinforce within him the evil nature of his act and thereby hopefully cause him to refrain from repeating it in the future.

The notion that actions affect attitudes is cited by Rabbi Dessler in Strive for Truth (Part 5, Parshas Va'Yetzei), as the philosophy underlying the performance of mitzvot – i.e., outward actions stimulate inward emotions. It is also a cornerstone of modern psychology (see, e.g., Making it as a Couple: Prescription for a Quality Relationship by Dr. Allen Fay).

We can now understand why a person who has sinful thoughts, while not facing divine punishment, must still bring a korban olah. The idea is that by going through the exertion and expense of bringing a korban, the sinner will focus on the great upheaval caused by his sinful thoughts. He will feel regret for the sinful thought and commit to elevate his thoughts in the future. That is, the actions affect his attitude towards his thoughts - i.e., sinful thought is not something to be lightly dismissed.

In the absence of korbanot, we can still implement the Torah’s technique by engaging in actions that are noble and righteous, thereby preoccupying our minds with thoughts that are positive and uplifting. Indeed, this is how tzaddikim achieve purity of thought – they are constantly preoccupied with learning Torah and performing righteous deeds.

The converse is true as well - by refraining from sinful acts with our eyes, mouth, ears, hands and feet, we thereby minimize the risk of sinful thought.

May we internalize this message of parshat tzav and always aspire to righteousness in deed and thought.


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