Nazir 23: Paving the Road of Good Intentions

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |
One of the long standing debates in ethical theory is whether it is actions or intentions that determines the ethical probity of our actions. There is little doubt that in our bottom line oriented society it is actions that count. We reward success, not noble intent. We treat attempted murder much differently than actual murder; though in reality the only difference is that a murderer has better aim.
"The road to hell is paved with good intentions" pretty well sums up the societal attitude.
In many ways Jewish thought agrees with this attitude. Jewish law also treats attempted murder differently that murder itself. That actions matter most is summed up in the teaching that "one should always be involved in Torah and Mitzvot shelo lishma, not for their own sake, shimitoch shelo lishma bah lishmah, as from the wrong motives one comes to the proper motives (Nazir 23b). If mitzvoth have inherent value - and they do - it matters little what one's intent is. We have do what needs to be done and feeling or intent matters little. This is especially true in mitzvoth between man and man where, even if less than properly motivated, if I help you, you are helped even if I have no interest in acting to help you. It is instructive that the highest level of tzedakah is providing a job for someone else allowing that person to become self-sufficient, despite the fact that ninety-eight times out of a hundred one provides a job to others to benefit themselves. 
Yet somehow for a religiously motivated person this does not seem quite right. Can it really be that actions reign supreme, especially being that the results of our actions are often beyond our control? Surely G-d who knows our innermost thoughts (better than we know them ourselves) wants those thoughts to be of noble intent. "The Merciful One desires our hearts" (Sanhedrin 106b). 
"A woman who took a nazirite vow and was [illicitly] drinking wine and defiling herself with the dead she is to be punished with lashes. [However] if her husband had annulled her vow but she did not know that he had done so and was drinking wine and defiling herself with the dead she is not to be punished with lashes" (Nedarim 23a).
This is quite an amazing teaching. By luck of the draw the woman escapes punishment. Tried as she may, she did nothing wrong. Yet such is only here on earth. From a heavenly perspective she requires atonement. After all are her actions or intent really any different just because her husband -unbeknownst to her - annulled the vow?
"Our Rabbis taught: 'Her husband made them void, and the Lord will forgive her' (Bamidbar 30:13), Scripture is speaking of a woman whose husband has declared her [vow] void without her knowledge". True no unlawful act was committed. But that was not for lack of trying. And while one may be innocent in a human court such is not so in the Divine court of justice.  And so, "when Rabbi Akiva reached this verse he wept: 'For if one who intended to take swine's flesh and by chance takes lamb's flesh stands is in need of atonement and forgiveness, how much more so does one who intended to take swine's flesh and actually took it, stand in need of atonement'?" Intentions do matter even if no untoward act was committed.  
That it was Rabbi Akiva, the eternal optimist of the Jewish people, the one who could see hope while others saw despair, the one who while being tortured by the Romans could be thankful for the opportunity to fulfill the precept to love G-d with all one's soul, could be brought to tears for a "simple" unsuccessful intent to sin tells us all we need to know. G-d can throw what He wants at us but we will not despair, but if man just tries to sin - that is a horrible tragedy. 
The Gemara continues. "And if any one sin, and do any of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done, though he does not know it, he is guilty, and shall bear his iniquity" (Vayikra 5:17). The verse as understood by our Sages refers to a doubtful sin where one consumes meat thinking it is kosher and then discovers that they may not have been such. There is is now uncertainty as to whether forbidden fats were eaten. If in the case above the intent was wrong but the action permissible, in this case it is the action that is (potentially) sinful despite the fact that there was no intent to sin. Here too atonement is needed. If in such a case where no prohibition may have been done one must "bear his iniquity" how much more so when one knowingly, by intent and action, sinned. 
Interestingly, especially at this time of year, the Ramah in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim, 602) notes that in examining areas for improvement during the aseret yemi teshuva one should pay extra attention to areas where we are in doubt as to whether we actually sinned. One can only effectively begin the teshuva process when one knows they did something wrong. However if one is uncertain that anything wrong was done one is most unlikely to do teshuva - after all what is there to repent for? 

We must especially examine those areas where on the surface all appears fine - but beneath it lay areas for improvement. Such is true in business, athletics, social services and all areas of life. It is certainly true as we prepare for Yom Kippur.