At the very end of last week's Torah portion (Shelach), we read that the Israelites are instructed to place fringes on the corners of their garments.
Why? Because “you shall see it and be mindful of all God’s commandments and you shall do them. And you shall not stray after your heart and after your eyes....”
The basic understanding of this expression to “stray after your heart” is that we should not lust after objects we see and desire.
This is puzzling, because in Judaism we emphasize actions, not thoughts, right? We don’t consider it sinful to have bad thoughts. Our tradition is clear about that. And anyway, how can we control our thoughts? Isn’t that commanding the impossible?
But this verse of Torah is definitely considered a “thou shalt not” commandment. Do not go astray after your heart… How can we understand this?
Here is one explanation, from the 16th century kabbalist Chaim Vital:
A sin has four components:
1. a thought arising in the mind
2. rumination in the heart
So there are actually two types of thinking.
First: A thought arises in the mind.
Chaim Vital says, this first type of thought is not a problem. Thoughts arise – that’s just what happens in the mind. Good, bad, it doesn’t matter – it’s just a thought.
But it’s the second type of thinking that gets us into trouble, and sets us on the path to sinful speech and action – when we grab onto a thought and brood about it, and chew on it, and make a whole drama out of it. This is what Chaim Vital and others refer to as “ruminations of the heart.” And this is the type of thinking that the Torah is instructing us not to do when we see something that we want. Because allowing the mind to go astray after what it thinks it wants can lead to real suffering.
And this type of thinking is within our control.