Thoughts of the Heart

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish


"R. Inyani bar Sasson said: Why does the biblical unit on sacrifices follow immediately after the unit on the priestly garments? To teach that just as sacrifices make atonement, so do the priestly garments make atonement.


The coat (ketonet) atones for bloodshed, as it is said, 'And they killed a he-goat, and dipped the coat (ketonet) in the blood' (Bereishit 37:31). The pants atone for sexual impropriety, as it is said, 'And you shalt make them linen pants to cover the flesh of their nakedness' (Shemot 28:42). The miter makes atonement for arrogance… 'Let an item that is placed high up come and atone for the offence of arrogance.' The girdle (avnet) atones for [impure] thoughts of the heart, i.e., the place where it was placed. The breastplate (choshen) atones for [neglect of] civil laws, as it is said, 'And you shalt make a breastplate of judgment (choshen mishpat).' The efod atones for idolatry, as it is said, 'Without the efod there are terafim'(Hoshea 3:4). The robe atoned for slander… 'Let an item that issues a sound come and atone for an offence of sound.' The headplate (tzitz) atoned for brazenness…" (Zevachim 88b)


The Gemara comes to explain the juxtaposition of the sacrifices with the priestly garments. Rashi explains that the reference here is to their juxtaposition in parashat Tzav, but a similar juxtaposition is to be found in our parasha, too.


Inter alia the Gemara teaches that the girdle (avnet) atones for impure thoughts of the heart, since it is worn over the heart, thus hinting to this organ. What sort of thoughts is the Gemara referring to? Seemingly, the atonement for impure thoughts is achieved in a different way: "Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: The burnt offering always comes (as atonement) for thoughts of the heart" (Vayikra Rabba 7, 3).


We might explain that there are different types of impure thoughts. The burnt offering atones for thoughts of sin – i.e., a person's planning or intention to sin, where in fact the sin was not committed. Concerning such thoughts, Chazal teach: "Thoughts of sin are worse (or "more difficult") than sin itself" (Yoma 29a). Perhaps what they mean by this is that it is more difficult to avoid sinful thoughts than it is to avoid sin itself, for it is easier to control one's actions than it is to control the mind.


However, the Rambam in Moreh Nevukhim (III, 8) offers a different interpretation of Chazal's teaching. He maintains that sinful thoughts are worse than the sin itself because when a person commits some transgression, only his physical limbs are involved in the act, while sinful thoughts entail a corruption of his intellect, which is his most elevated faculty.


There is another type of sinful thoughts: not thoughts of sinning, but in fact thoughts of mitzvot. The Rambam, in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot (positive mitzva #5) writes that the verse, "And to serve Him with all your heart" (Devarim 11:13), refers to the commandment of prayer. Ramban, in his gloss on the Rambam ad loc., argues that the mitzva of prayer is of rabbinic origin; the verse, "And to serve Him with all your heart," must therefore refer to something else:


"It is a positive commandment that all our service of God should be performed wholeheartedly; in other words, directed properly and completely for His sake, and with no inappropriate thoughts. The commandments should not be performed thoughtlessly, nor with doubt as to whether they bring any benefit."


We might therefore say that the burnt offering atones for thoughts of sin, while the avnet atones for thoughts of mitzvot – i.e., for those mitzvot that are performed without conviction of their supreme good, or out of habit and routine, not wholeheartedly.


There is another type of "thought" that is in fact a combination of the first two. In I Shmuel, chapter 15, we find an account of Shaul's war against Amalek. Shaul is commanded to wipe out every last trace of Amalek, but he spares Agag and the sheep and cattle, as a result of which he loses the monarchy. At first glance, it is not clear why he is punished so severely: after all, he succeeds in carrying out a complex military campaign, failing only in the fact that he leaves Agag alive, along with the beasts, for humanitarian reasons.


We might explain that if his compassion had had its source in true humanism, Shaul would not have massacred an entire people – men, women, and children. The fact that he did not refrain from killing the entire Amalekite nation shows that Agag and the animals were left alive not out of compassion, but rather owing to personal interests. Perhaps the animals were spared in order that they could be taken as spoils of war; perhaps Agag was spared in order to earn the adulation and honor shown to those who return from the battlefield with the enemy leader captured, alive. Since these were the sort of considerations that guided his actions, his punishment was severe.


However, Shaul's punishment can also be justified from a different perspective. In the story of the concubine in Giv'a (Shoftim 19-21), Am Yisrael goes out to war against the tribe of Binyamin, following the shocking abuse of the concubine by the men of Binyamin, leading to her death. The war seems altogether justified – it comes to preserve the sanctity of the camp and to put away the evil from their midst. Nevertheless, Am Yisrael is punished, and suffers defeat twice. Ramban, commenting on parashat Vayera, cites Chazal's explanation for this punishment:


"It was for this that there was punishment over the molten image of Mikha: the Holy One, blessed be He, said, You did not protest for My honor, yet you protested for the honor of flesh and blood. What this means is, 'You did not protest for My honor' – concerning those who were deserving of the death penalty, having transgressed the most serious of offenses (idolatry), 'yet you protested for the honor of flesh and blood' – going beyond the letter of the law." (commentary on Bereishit 19:8)


Am Yisrael did not go out to war in the wake of the atrocity of Mikha's statue – an episode that included real blasphemy and dishonor towards God; they were, however, ready to go out to war over an atrocity involving the dishonor of flesh and blood.


Had Am Yisrael indeed been so concerned for the purity of the camp, they should have taken offense at the dishonor shown to God. The fact that they did not, demonstrates that when they did go out to war, they were motivated not by such supposed pure considerations, but rather by other interests. Hence, the war may be viewed as having been undertaken for improper reasons and as shedding Jewish blood in vain.


Shaul's sin may be understood in a similar way. Since he spared Agag and the animals out of personal interests, it became clear retroactively that he had gone out to war in the first place not to fulfill God's command to wipe out Amalek, but rather in order to satisfy his own personal needs. Such a war is pure bloodshed, and thus Shaul is deserving of punishment for every Amalekite that he killed, and he is certainly not worthy of the monarchy.


Thus, there are thoughts which, when they accompany the performance of a mitzva, illuminate the act in a negative light, such that not only is it no longer a mitzva, but actually may be viewed as a transgression.


While we are familiar with Chazal's teaching that a person should engage in Torah and mitzvot even when these are not undertaken for their own sake – "From [being fulfilled] not for their own sake they will come [to be fulfilled] for their own sake" (Pesachim 50b), this does not apply to all mitzvot. There are some whose very essence is the intention behind them, and when this intention is improper or impure, the very mitzva itself becomes a transgression.


(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Tetzaveh 5753 [1993].)