Do our intentions matter?

September 29, 2011

Let’s say we intended to do a ritual in service of God but then we were unable to follow through on our intention.  Do our intentions count? 

If we have a truly good excuse, then the rabbis teach us that God is lenient in some areas, but not in others.

On Rosh Hashanah, we say a prayer that declares praise “to the One who tests hearts on the Day of Judgment.” 

According to the rabbis, this means that Hashem alone looks into our heart and sees what we really intended to do. 

As Talmud Berachot states: “If a person intended to a do a  good deed and then an accident happened and he was unable to do the good deed, it is considered as if he had actually performed the good deed.”  

Hashem recognizes that deep down, a person’s soul desires to do the right thing.  It is just that sometimes we have difficulty in our execution. 

This is a tremendous kindness that Hashem offers us in that we are judged by hidden intent and not by results.

However, there is a catch.  There is also a reverse situation where He judges our actions and not our intent.

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz explains: “As it relates to sins between man and their fellow man (i.e. sins of an interpersonal nature), good intentions do not count—even if one’s intentions are for the sake of heaven.  Why?  Because if one hurts their friend, then it is irrelevant what his intentions are. It is like if one sticks their hand in a fire, it is irrelevant why you stuck your hand in the fire, the hand will still get burnt.”

The message is that while God will look into our intentions as it relates to performing rituals and to connecting with Hashem spiritually, He will have no tolerance for us as it relates to our intentions in interpersonal behavior.  In the latter case, we have no room for excuses, just apologies.

The upshot is that we must live our lives with extraordinary sensitivity when it comes to our interpersonal relationships.

This is a central theme of the High Holidays, because a lack of respect for another human being is seen as the ultimate disrespect of God Himself.

Since we are created in God’s image, then how we treat others is a direct reflection of what we think of God.

On Rosh Hashanah we must remember that God is the all powerful king who may give us a pass when it comes to our own actions in our spiritual and ritualistic encounter with Him.  These actions are of course important and necessary for a meaningful relationship with God, but still, He knows what our true intentions are and He is merciful.  In turn, we have a great responsibility because He does not give us a pass when it comes to our intentions in our interpersonal relationships with His other creatures.

Thus, this Rosh Hashanah let us focus on serving God best by focusing our efforts on the idea of serving the King by honoring His creatures.  And here there is much less room for error.  Here intentions don’t matter.  Here we must all hold ourselves to a higher standard. 

Shmuel Herzfeld is a rabbi at Ohev Sholom in Washington, D.C.

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