Does God Get Inside Your Head?


By Bill Dauster


This week’s Torah portion is Yitro: Exodus 18:1–20:23

Does God follow our thoughts?

In this week’s Torah reading, among the Ten Commandments, God commands us not to covet anything of our neighbor’s.

Abraham Ibn Ezra said many find this commandment amazing. And Nahum Sarna asked, can desire or its avoidance be legislated? Can there be liability for mere intentions or feelings? Can we control those things?

But many have viewed the commandment not to covet as among the most important. In Leviticus Rabbah, Rabbi Levi ranked the commandment not to covet up there with the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself. And Menachem Recanati taught that the prohibition of coveting includes all the commandments.

Thoughts are powerful. The Talmud in Tractate Yoma warns that thoughts of transgression are worse than transgression itself. The Sefer HaChinukh explains that a bad thought can lead to many mishaps, as once people fix on the thought to get something that they covet, that bad desire will keep gnawing at them to take bad actions.

And so, Ibn Ezra taught that intelligent people try to train themselves not to desire what’s prohibited. Ibn Ezra said that we need to be like a farmhand who doesn’t entertain thoughts of dating a beautiful princess because he knows that it’s impossible. Similarly, Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that one who wants to avoid sin needs to stifle the desire at its inception.

The rabbis, however, didn’t want to set the bar so high that people just couldn’t follow. The Mekhilta taught that one doesn’t transgress the commandment not to covet until one performs an act in furtherance of that coveting.

Even so, aren’t there times when we want God inside our head? For example, don’t we want God to hear our prayers even when we don’t say them out loud? Don’t we want God to listen to our thoughts during the silent Amidah? In Talmud Tractate Berachot, one rabbi went so far as to say that those who make their voice heard in the silent Amidah lack faith.

In a remarkable way, God cuts us some slack. The Talmud in Tractates Shabbat and Kiddushin tells us that God regards a good thought as if it were a good deed. If a person intends to perform a mitzvah but is unable to perform it, Scripture gives credit as if the good deed was done.

But on the flip side, the Talmud teaches that God does not regard an evil thought as a deed. God doesn’t punish us if we merely contemplate doing wrong, so long as we check ourselves short of action.

And so, God does watch our thoughts, but in God’s merciful way, God treats us as if we’re basically good. We get credit for the good thoughts and don’t get blamed for the bad.
As Hirsch contemplated the role of thinking in this week’s parashah, he noted the order of the Ten Commandments. They begin with a demand on the mind — with belief in God.

But the Commandments are not satisfied with just that but demand the expression of that belief in words and actions. Then the social laws begin with deeds and words — with prohibition of murder — but are not satisfied with just that and ultimately demand control of thought and feeling — with the prohibition of coveting.

Hirsch reasoned that honoring God in spirit alone is insufficient if the thought is not strong enough to affect words and deed. And Hirsch argued that social action will crumble if it is not motivated by looking up to God. Hirsch thus concluded that we need both — thoughts and deeds.
God cares about both.

Questions for Discussion
What should be more important in determining reward or punishment — intent or action?
Should good intentions be enough?
If one does good deeds, should it matter whether one had good intentions?

Bill Dauster, a Senate, White House, and campaign staffer since 1986, has written Wikipedia articles on the 54 Torah portions.

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