Are Bad Thoughts worse than Bad Actions? (Nitzavim)
You cannot escape the results of your thoughts. Whatever your present environment may be, you will fall, remain or rise with your thoughts, your vision, your ideal. You will become as small as your controlling desire; as great as your dominant aspiration. -James Allen
There is a Talmudic dictum that has bothered me since I heard it. It states that “thoughts are worse than actions.” That somehow, merely thinking about a sin, contemplating it, wallowing in thoughts of desire, are worse than the act of sin itself. That while sinning is of course wrong, carrying the thought of sin in one’s head is worse.
I always felt this a dangerous dictum. It may give some a license to sin. It may justify to someone who was just considering a sin, to go ahead and do the actual deed if he believes it’s not as bad as the thoughts scurrying around in his head.
However, in Rabbeinu Bechaye on Deuteronomy 29:18 (Nitzavim) I found an answer that I’m comfortable with. He explains that sinful thoughts are worse than the actual sin, after the sin. It seems that harping on the sin, after the fact, is worse and carries a greater punishment for the soul than the damage the sin itself did.
This answer resolves the other Talmudic dictum, which I find much more comforting, that there is no punishment whatsoever for sinful thoughts (except for idolatrous thoughts). So, to recap Rabbeinu Bechaye’s view:
Sinful thoughts without sinning carry no punishment (except for thinking of idol worship).
Doing an actual sin carries its prescribed punishment.
Having sinful thoughts after the sin is worse than the actual sin and damages and punishes the soul even further.
Of course, there’s a trump card that absolves all of our bad thoughts and actions: repentance. Our repentance can retroactively cleanse the spiritual ledger. It can wipe the slate clean and allows us to start our spiritual accounting anew, refreshed, rejuvenated.
As we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it’s a good time to clean up our minds and our actions.
Shabbat Shalom and Ktiva Ve’chatima Tova,
To Yitzi & Dalia Stern for a wonderful Shabbat.