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Rabbi Yosef Benarroch: Do Our Thoughts Matter

by Rabbi Yosef Benarroch, Aug 18, 2017

As the High Holidays approach I would like to explore the question of whether G-d cares about the way we think? Many people will answer that what G-d is interested in is the way we act and less concerned with the way we think. A person, they will argue, cannot be punished for thinking about a sin unless they perpetrate the sin. Rabbinic literature constantly impresses upon us the importance of action. In Ethics of Our Fathers they state “One whose actions are greater than their study is compared to a sturdy tree whose roots are deep.” (Pirkei Avot 3:17) Back to our question, do our thoughts matter?


I believe the answer to that question is a resounding yes. The High Holiday liturgy is filled with statements about how accountable we are for the way we think. Here is one example from the Sefardic liturgy. One of the best-known piyutim (songs) is “Adon Ha-Selihot” (Master of Forgiveness), containing the verse “Master of forgiveness, the one who examines our hearts, the one who reveals our inner secrets…the one who knows all our hidden thoughts… We have sinned before you, forgive us.” (From the Selihot service)


Yes it would be nice if G-d would just leave us alone and only care about our actions. It’s hard enough to behave properly. But our prayers would seem to indicate that the way we think is also (if not just as) important. In fact, Maimonides made just that point. In the Laws of Repentance, he writes: “Don’t think that repentance is for sins of action such as adultery and theft. Rather, just as a person must repent for these sins so too must they identify and repent for inappropriate thoughts that they have. These include anger, hatred, and jealousy… for these too one must repent and in fact these are more difficult to correct than sins of action.” (Maimonides Laws of Repentance 7:3) Rabbi Avraham Hayishak Hacohen Kook states in his monumental work on repentance,“Ones will (thought) is everything.” (Orot Hateshuva 9:1)


Why is the way we think so important? Why isn’t action enough? Why is repentance dependant on changing the way we think? Let me answer with an example of a person who decides to go on a diet. We all know that diets are all about one’s mindset. What would be the effectiveness of a diet if a person craved their favorite food all day? It’s only a matter of time before that person would sneak into the fridge to devour the last piece of chocolate cake (trust me - I know from experience). Diets start and end with our mindset. Unless one can change the way they think about food, they have very little chance to succeed in their diet.


Repentance works the same way. Unless we shift the way that we approach all of the weaknesses we are trying to correct we will never be able to change them. Once again we can turn to Maimonides for a very important insight into the process of repentance. He states the following, “Repentance is when one stops doing the sin they were engaged in and then they remove it from their thoughts and then accept (in their mind) to never do it again.” (Maimonides Laws of Repentance 2:2) According to Maimonides it is not enough to just stop doing the forbidden act; one must remove it from their mind and accept to never do it again.


In the month of Elul when the question of repentance becomes an important one, we would do well to remember this lesson. Certainly the last thing we want to do during this time of repentance is utter empty words. Elul is a gift given to us to make an accounting of our actions and thoughts, and change for the better. True change cannot happen unless we change the way we think. The reality we live in is the reality that we create with our minds. Let’s all pray that during this month of Elul we all have the strength to change our thinking for the good. Trust me, if you begin to think good it will only be a matter of time before you begin to do good.


Wishing you a Shana Tova,

Rabbi Yosef Benarroch

Adas Yeshurun Herzlia

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