Wicked Thoughts Lead to Sin
Our Parsha recounts that the Children of Israel complained about the manna by saying: “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge; and the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions…. But now, our life is parched, there is nothing; we have nothing to anticipate but the manna!” (Numbers 11:5-6). At that moment, they fell into sin.
It is necessary to understand what is happening here. How is it possible that the Children of Israel complained because of the fish, cucumbers, and melons that they ate in Egypt, while in the desert they weren’t given such food? How did they come to expressing such demands? Another difficulty: How is it possible that the generation of the desert, which we call the Dor Deah (Generation of Knowledge – Vayikra Rabba 9:1), made up of great Tzaddikim, had had enough of the manna to the point of saying, “But now, our life is parched” and only desired material food, whereas they knew that the Torah could only be explained by those who ate the manna (Mechilta and Tanhuma Beshalach 17)? How did they fall to the point of longing for nothing other than material sustenance?
We begin our explanation by citing what the Sages have said on the verse, “It tasted like the taste of dough kneaded with oil” (Numbers 11:8): In the manna, each person found several tastes, much like a baby finds different tastes in his mother’s breast milk (Yoma 75a). The Sages also said that G-d made the manna come down with all the flavors they wanted (Shemot Rabba 25:3). If someone felt like having meat, that is what he tasted, without even asking for it; it was simply enough to think about a flavor in order to obtain it. The manna was actually “the bread of the mighty” (Psalms 78:25), the bread of the ministering angels (Yoma 75a). G-d therefore demonstrated great kindness towards the Children of Israel by giving them all the tastes they desired through the manna. This was in order that they might spiritually elevate all foods, each one having a different taste.
Yet instead of using the manna to their advantage in achieving this goal, the Children of Israel tried to taste what they had known in Egypt (“we remember the fish…”), for in reality it was the material taste that they were interested in, to the extent that they caused themselves to spiritually plummet. This in an indication that they weren’t sufficiently attached to the Torah. Actually, someone who is entirely immersed in the holy Torah completely forgets what he has eaten the day before. If he remembers, this shows that his principle interest is not in Torah, but rather in food, and he is in very great danger.
We learn from this that someone who continually remembers his past behavior and his sins in their least detail easily risks falling into despair. This is why the evil inclination tries without stop to make a man recall his sins and the fact that he is a sinner. Certainly, one must be conscious of his sins and repent of them, but should not concentrate on their details. As King David said, “For I recognize my transgressions, and my sin is before me always” (Psalms 51:5). It is only in this way that one can repent completely.
We also note that after the sin of the golden calf, once the evil inclination returned, it didn’t stop trying to make the Children of Israel transgress. This was in order to make them fall into despair, which was also the case as regards the manna. The evil inclination saw all the kindnesses that G-d had bestowed on us (by giving us the bread of angels in order to sanctify and purify us) and it knew that the manna allowed a person to explain the Torah. The evil inclination also observed all the other good things that were bestowed on the Children of Israel, as it is written, “Your garment did not wear out upon you and your feet did not swell” (Deuteronomy 8:4), and it immediately tried to make all sorts of doubts and wicked thoughts enter into their heart. It wanted to confuse them concerning the difference between the manna (spiritual food that was holy) and what they ate in Egypt (material food, savory and nourishing). The Children of Israel then concluded that they also wanted the food of Egypt.
Even so, they should have understood that all this stemmed from their evil inclination, which looked for ways to make them sin. In fact, what did it matter what the Egyptians ate at other times – wasn’t the main thing to rejoice at present over spiritual food such as the manna? Yet they didn’t reflect upon this, and they dropped considerably in their spiritual level. This teaches us that if a man doesn’t sufficiently reflect upon things, and doesn’t pay enough attention to his wicked thoughts, his spiritual state can suffer greatly.
Recalling sin can be dangerous, to the point of destroying the desire to repent. One should therefore always ask G-d to “remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellions” (Psalms 25:7). The Gemara contains two instructions on this point. The first (Kiddushin 40a) is that the Holy One, blessed be He, does not ascribes a wicked thought to the deed, as it is written, “Had I perceived iniquity in my heart, the L-rd would not have listened” (Psalms 66:18). The Sages’ second instruction, however, is that imagining sin is worse than actually committing it (Yoma 29a). What difference is there, therefore, between thought and imagination?
A wicked thought is not actually considered an act, for an actual act has not been committed just by thinking about it, and if it has been, it still remains possible to correct it through repentance. But imagining a sin, dreaming about it, affects the heart and has an influence on the entire body. Now a man doesn’t consider it necessary to repent of an imperfection of the heart, which is what makes it so serious. He takes joy in his daydreams, which brings about a great spiritual fall. One must therefore avoid such fantasies and remedy them immediately. In the desert, the Children of Israel recalled what they had eaten in Egypt, enjoying these impure foods in their imagination so much that their hearts and thoughts were affected, resulting in their stern protests against Moses.
Each person should therefore purify his thoughts, which will allow him to be elevated. This is what we observe at the end of the account concerning Tzipporah: “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married” (Numbers 12:1). Tzipporah was called a “Cushite woman” (eminently beautiful) because everyone recognized her beauty, which alludes to her beauty both in appearance and deeds (Tanhuma 96:13). How were her deeds beautiful? Apparently, she could have protested against her husband Moses because he had separated himself from her for the sake of the community (a decision that G-d had approved – Shabbat 87a), and she probably would have wished to continue living with him. However, she didn’t at all complain, and she kept herself from all harmful imaginations and wicked thoughts concerning her husband, which is why she was called beautify both in appearance and deed. In fact, wicked thoughts bring about sin, whereas holy thoughts elevate a man.