As humans, we really have two very different selves. There is the outside me, the self that I present to the world. The things I say and the things I do all my actions and deeds. This self is completely open and observable to anyone who pays attention.
Then there is the second self which is the inside self; my thoughts, my emotions, my feelings my inner struggles. This second self is completely hidden from the world. This inside self certainly has aspects which are good and noble but there are probably also parts of it that are negative and maybe even a little ugly and we are pleased that nobody can see them. We are full of resentments, anger, envy, jealousy and the list goes on and on.
Question: With regards to these negative inner emotions or thoughts, if I keep them inside, if they never manifest themselves in negative words or behavior, If they remain “sins of the heart” and never the leave the heart, Have I sinned? According to Judaism, are sins of the heart considered sins?
What we are going to do in order to answer this question if first, look at the Torah and then look at the Yom Kippur liturgy to answer this question which is so important on Yom Kippur as we have to know if we must do Teshuva on sins of the heart.
First lets look at the Torah. Example #1: The Torah teaches us in the final of the 10 commandments, לא תחמוד ...וכל אשר לרעך do not covet … everything you’re your friend owns.
The straightforward understanding of this text would be that the Torah recognizes sins of the heart and considers them to be a sin. The Torah seems to be telling us that even if the feeling of jealousy remains inside, it is still a sin. However, Maimonides based on the Talmud teaches us that as long as the feeling of jealousy remains inside, does not translate into action, it is not a sin. In order to violate this prohibition one must take the jealous feeling into action and actually pressure your friend into selling the object to you. So we see that Halakha does not legislate emotions. It does not consider a sin of the heart to be a sin.
Example #2 where the Torah seems to be forbidding an emotion. Vayikra 19:17 – לא תשנא את אחיך בלבבך do not hate your brother in your heart. Where is the hatred? It is in the heart. Once again, the straightforward reading of the Torah seems to legislate emotions. It seems to tell us that we cannot have hatred even if it remains in the heart.
But once again the rabbis connect this prohibition to an action. They connect the above line with the next line, הוכח תוכח את עמיתך which means rebuke your friend. What is the connection between hating and rebuking? Our rabbis teach us that if someone harms you, you must rebuke the person because if you pretend that is everything is ok, you will come to hate him in your heart. In other words, the Torah is not legislating emotions. It cannot tell us that we cannot hate someone for hate is an emotion. However, the Torah can tell us that we must confront our friend if we fell they have harmed us because if we do not, it will lead to hatred in the heart.
The above two examples show that while the straightforward reading of the Torah might indicate that there are sins of the heart, the overwhelming thrust of rabbinic thought comes down strongly on the side that the torah does not prohibit thoughts, only actions.
It is therefore somewhat surprising when we read one of the על חטא 's that deals with this topic. ע"ח שחטאנו לפניך בהרהור הלב – on the sin that we have committed before you through thoughts of the heart, through sins of the heart. The question is obvious. If, halacha does not legislate emotions, if the realm of jewish law is deed and not thought, then why are clapping על חטא for sins of the heart?
And in order to strengthen the question, let us look at a very strong statement from Yoma 29a
הרהורי עבירה קשין מעבירה – thoughts of sin are worse than sin itself. How can this be? If we have established that Judaism does not legislate emotions only actions, then how can the emotion of feeling of sin be worse than the sin itself. And if sins of the heart are not sins, then why are we asked to do teshuva on them?
In order to answer the question, I would like to turn to one of the most important books ever written on the topic of Teshuva, and it is not even a Jewish book; The Alcoholics Anonymous Blue book, commonly referred to as the Big Book. I have a brother who works in an Addiction Clinic in Florida and he is doing amazing work running addiction support groups. The famous 12 step program is based in the Big Book and I often discuss with my brother the similarities between the teachings of AA and Jewish teachings. These comparisons are very important especially on Yom Kippur as we are involved in our own teshuva process and those of you who anything about addiction recovery know that it is all about Teshuva.
In the big Book, we are told that when it comes to addiction, “liquor is but the symptom, so we had to get down to the causes and conditions.”
What are the causes and conditions if not the drinking itself? The Big Book goes on to enumerate them. “Resentment is the #1 offender.”
The Big Book list goes on. We were selfish, dishonest with ourselves, self-seeking, selfish, full of fear and full of blaming others.
What is remarkable about this list is that all of these sins are sins of the heart. The underlying sin isn’t the drinking. It isn’t the lying that an addict does to his friends and families. It isn’t the stealing to get more alcohol or drugs. All of those things are actions and as awful as they are, they are just the symptoms. The causes and conditions are all of the sins of the heart.
This amazing teaching from the Big Book can help us answer the question that we posed before. We had a contradiction. On the one hand, Judaism teaches us that we are not legally responsible (we cannot be punished), for sins of the heart. But then we find in the Yom Kippur Vidui that we must do Teshuva for sins of the heart.
The answer is obvious. In Judaism, sins of the heart are not sins but they are the causes and conditions which lead to sin. The sin itself, the actual bad deed is only the symptom. The disease is internal. The disease is in the mind, heart or soul.
o as we are engaging in our process of Teshuva this Yom Kippur let us not lose the forest in the trees. True, we must look at individual particular sins and figure out how to stop doing them but we must also ask the deeper question. What kinds of sins are in my heart that case theses sins of action. To take one example, we will confess the sin of Lashon Hara and we definitely need to work on stopping this. But the more important question that we need to ask is, “what kind of person am I, on the inside, that I would sit around fro a ½ hour gossiping about another persons.”
This process could be painful but it is also full of joy. When you speak to someone who is a recovering addict, someone who has really done teshuva, they have a certain sense of joy and they will tell you something amazing. They say that the best thing that happened to them was their drug use. Because the drug use was just the symptom of a disease that they already had. And it was only because the symtoms got so bad that they had to address the disease. And now they are better off than they were before the drug use. There is something very promising and joyful about the possibility of teshuva and this reminds me of a story that I would like to conclude with.
The Holy Baal Shem Tov was once traveling before Yom Kippur and he was not going to be able to make it home for Yom Kippur. So he stopped in a small Jewish town and he asked some of the townspeople, who will be the Chazan for Yom Kippur Davening. The townspeople responded that the Rabbi of the town leads the davening. The Baal Shem Tov asked if the rabbi does anything special during the davening and the people said, that when he reads the Vidui, the confessions, he does it with very joyous niggunim (songs). The Baal Shem Tov thought that this was a little bizarre so he asked them to call the rebbe to come and see him. When the rabbi arrived, the Baal Shem tov asked, why do you sing the Vidui with such happy songs. The rabbi responded as follows. When I clean my house, it is difficult work. I have to bend down on my hands and knees and scrub and sometimes I uncover things that aren’t so nice, but there is a sense of joy because I know that when I am done cleaning, my house will be clean. So when I clean the house, I usually hum a joyous tune. If that is true about my physical house, how much more so when I am cleaning my spiritual house, my soul. When I am done with the Confession, my seal will be clean. My soul will be pure and ready to connect with G-d and that is why I am full of joy and I sing happy tunes. When the Baal shem tov heard this, he said, we are staying here in this town for Yom Kippur. I would like this rabbi to lead the davening for me.
Doing Teshuva, confessing, being truly honest with ourselves, trying to address not only the symptoms but the root cause of the disease, this isn’t easy work. It is difficult. But what an amazing opportunity that we are all given once a year. And this is why we should approach it with a sense of happiness. A sense of joy because we can clean our spiritual house. We can become spiritually healthy. And in that merit, may we all be blessed to be inscribed and sealed in the book of life. For a year of health, prosperity, peace and only good things for ourselves, our families, the jewish people and all of the inhabitants of this world.