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Parashat 03/30/2011

Parashat Tazria 5771

by Robert Rabinoff

It’s the Thought that Counts

Having concluded its discussion of (spi)ritual impurity brought on by dead animals, Torah continues on with impurity generated from within the individual human being.  The first such form of impurity is that caused by childbirth, and it is cleansed after a period of 40 or 80 days (for a boy or a girl respectively) with the offering of a sin-offering.  Our Sages ask the obvious question – what is the new mother’s sin?!  They answer that it is for swearing, in her duress, not to have any more children, an oath which actually is null and void for various reasons, not the least of which is that it was made under duress.  If so, why does she need a sin-offering?  The Ramban explains that it is not for any action that she took, but rather for having inappropriate thoughts that she needs this atonement.

The question of inappropriate thoughts arises in other areas of life as well.  For example, when praying, it is important to focus on the words, and not just let the mind wander all over the place.  This is called having kavannah, literally direction.  Of course in the case of prayer we want our thoughts to be directed towards H” to Whom we are speaking.  Just as if we were speaking with the President we would certainly be focused on the conversation, how much more so when we are speaking with the Master of the Universe!

Another example: the 10th commandment is the prohibition against coveting.  Coveting is a thought, or desire.  We are commanded to not have certain inappropriate thoughts, but it is not clear how we can control our thoughts.  Our Sages answer that when one knows that everything he has is exactly what he needs to complete his particular mission in life, the thought that he should have somebody else’s possessions will simply not enter his mind.

The Ramban elsewhere directs our attention to tractate Yoma 29a, where the Rabbis state that a sinful thought is worse than a sinful act.  Now obviously inappropriate thoughts can lead to inappropriate action, but if that were the problem with thoughts, we wouldn’t say that they were worse than action, for if they were, the bulk of the sin would already have taken place on the level of thought, and the action would be, as it were “icing on the cake.”  Rather Ramban states that sinful thoughts actually move in the other direction, towards heaven, and pollute the upper realms, whereas wrong actions only pollute the lower realms.  The upper realms, being closer to Gd, are more subtle and more powerful, and any wrong direction there can be much more damaging than mistakes in the lower realms.

Let’s try and pull the different ends of this picture together.  We have discussed before that creation is a layered affair, with Gd, infinite and eternal, at the center, and a series of layers, from more refined and abstract to more coarse and concrete proceeding “outward” until we come to the material world that we all inhabit.  It appears that the process of thinking mirrors this structure.  When we are very silent inside we can experience thoughts at a very subtle level as they begin to manifest.  The thought then becomes more and more concrete, until, if we act on it, it becomes completely concrete as it is actualized in the material world.  If our soul and our body are pure, the thought can move from our infinite center to the surface of our mind without any distortion.  It will be a pure manifestation of the infinite creativity that lies within us.  If, on the other hand, we have sullied ourselves with sinful behaviors, the thought will have to pass through a gauntlet of impurities on the way to the surface, and it will get distorted.  Eventually, if a thought translates into action, it will project the relative state of our soul, for better or otherwise, on the outside world.

When Ramban points out that sinful thoughts can pollute the higher realms, I believe he was describing a different process.  Just as it is possible to observe a thought coming from the depths to the surface, so too it is possible to take a thought from the surface back to the depths.  Instead of thinking on a superficial level, we can learn to think on a more refined and powerful level.  From that more refined level it is possible to influence the more refined levels of creation, and therefore our thoughts can become powerful vehicles for manifesting our intentions.  However, the more the power, the more the responsibility.  If our souls are polluted, then, in Ramban’s analogy, our sinful thoughts will pollute the upper realms – that is, the more refined layers on which we are thinking.  I believe this is why Kabbalah, the Jewish esoteric tradition, with its techniques of meditation, could only be taught from teacher to individual students, and only after those students had demonstrated through their behavior that they had such a sufficiently refined character that they would not be a danger to themselves nor to others.  Torah study, meditation and prayer lead to this kind of refinement.

Thoughts are powerful; our thoughts can move whole worlds.  If we make full use of the potential of our minds we can create a universe of perfect harmony that perfectly reflects Gd’s Will.  It’s our duty as individuals and as members of the Jewish people to make sure that we don’t squander or misuse this Gd-given gift.

Note: Some of the ideas in this drash come from the book Al HaRishonim by R. Aryeh Brueckheimer, Targum Press 2010.  What I have done with them is of course not to be blamed on R. Brueckheimer!