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Shabbat Parashat Vayeira 5784

Parashat Hashavua: The Danger of Sinful Contemplation

Harav Yosef Carmel

There is a surprising midrash about the background of the test that Avraham underwent with the binding of Yitzchak, which the Torah introduces with the words “It was after these matters” (Bereishit 22:1). The obvious questions are: what were these “matters” and what was their significance? One midrash (Yelamdenu, Bereishit 104) says that Avraham had contemplated negative thoughts about Hashem’s attribute of judgment. Avraham was concerned that because he had been saved from death, he used up his reward and would not have any in the world to come. Consequently, he had to give an oleh sacrifice, which is appropriate for sins of the heart (with the sacrifice being his son).

Does Hashem really punish for sins of thought without a sin in action? The mishna (Nazir 23a) says that if a woman made a vow to make herself a nazir, her husband canceled the vow without telling her, and she violated the terms of nezirut, she is not liable for the punishment. However, the gemara (ad loc.) continues to derive that she still requires atonement because she planned to violate the prohibition. So the conclusion is that for sins of the heart alone there is not punishment, although there is a need for rectification.

Why, then, was Avraham “punished” for his thoughts and did he have to bind his son to an altar? The answer is that a man on the level of Avraham has to pay a price even for only thoughts that are not of the level expected of him.

We will prove this concept of holding great people responsible for thoughts from a story later in Bereishit, a section that was also introduced with the words “It was after these matters.” Like his great grandfather, Yosef was also tested, not with ten different tests, but with the same test, day after day. The wife of Potiphar desired Yosef and repeatedly tried to seduce him. Yosef refused time and again (Bereishit 39:7-10). Yet, a curious pasuk about one of those days, when the house was mainly empty, says that Yosef “came into the house to do his work” (ibid. 11), which Chazal viewed as unusual language. Rabbi Yochanan (in Sota 36b) says that at that point, Yosef joined his master’s wife in planning to sin.

At the end, Yosef overcame his desires and did not sin. However, he paid a heavy price for his thoughts, as after running away from her, she decided to accuse Yosef of attacking her, and as a result, Yosef sat in jail for ten years despite his innocence (Shemot Rabba 7:1). The reason is, again, that a tzaddik has to pay for behavior below his level, which includes by thought. This would not happen to a regular person, if for example, he meant to eat not kosher and it turned out to be kosher (although he would need atonement).

We have substantiated that the righteous must be careful about what they think. All the more so, they need to be careful about what they say!  

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