Parshat Shemini: On Good Intentions, and Deeds That Are Less So

On Good Intentions, and Deeds That Are Less So

Rabbi Dr. Ronen ben David is the Headmaster of Neveh Channah High School for Girls, named in memory of Anna Ehrman

Rabbi Ronen Ben DavidWe all grew up on the words of our Sages: “God counts good intent like a good deed” (Babylonian Talmud, tractate of Kidushin, 40).  In other words, when one has the intent to do something good, God already considers it as though one has done the deed itself. 

On the other hand, we are also familiar with the words of Bernard of Clairvaux who lived in the 12th century: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  How does one deal with this supposed paradox?  Are good intentions really enough, or might they lead to catastrophe?

Our parsha relates a very difficult story.  On the eighth day of the Mishkan’s inauguration ceremony, in the midst of the festive celebrations, when all the people have gathered together, and the happiness has reached a climax – a divine fire descends from heaven – a sign that God has accepted the people’s offerings.  A truly uplifting moment!  However, soon afterwards, the two sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, “offered a strange fire before the Lord” and God’s response is very harsh:  “And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.”

At the height of the festivities, when all have just seen that God has accepted their sacrifices, a terrible tragedy befalls the nation: two of its most prominent leaders find their death.  A strange fire.  Calamity. 

Many of our exegetes tried to understand the strange sin of the sons of Aharon.  After all, they were from the most distinguished family of kohanim.  How is it possible that they committed such a terrible sin?  What was even wrong with what they had done?  What is the problem with offering additional incense, even if it is more than what God had commanded?

In midrash Torat Kohanim, our Sages suggest a broader reading of these verses and suggest the following:  It was their arrogance that led Nadav and Avihu to believe they could do whatever they wanted at the altar.  However, God taught them that not everything one wants to do is, in fact, the right thing to do.  Even with the best of intentions.  Our Sages went so far as to say:  “Shechatzim hayu” – they were arrogant and had too much pride.  In another midrash, our Sages describe them as not having taken wives because they believed there was no woman good enough for them.  (This midrash is based on the verse in Bamidbar 3, 4: “And they had no wives.”)  Ultimately, most of the commentaries suggest pride as the root of their sin – the sentiment of “I shall rule”, as it is termed by the Kabbalists.  Consequently, God punished them by death, and, in so doing, reminded their remaining siblings as well as all the people of Israel that only He is the true ruler, King of all kings. 

In keeping with this notion, we can better understand Moshe’s words to Aharon after his sons’ death: “Through them that are close unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.”  Even those closest to God must understand that He will not tolerate any deed of theirs.  Their death was both a punishment, as well as a lesson meant to glorify God before the people. Aharon’s response is a very painful one: “And Aharon held his peace.” A very heavy silence denoting an acceptance of the verdict.

Notwithstanding the above, there is an alternative commentary, which explains their sin quite differently:  Aharon’s sons had good intentions, and directed their hearts towards Heaven.  They saw God’s glory upon the altar and wanted to transmit this glory to the people as well.  Their thoughts were profoundly good, and their intent was nothing short of excellent.  However, good intentions must be expressed within the framework of mitzvot, and not as some sort of spiritual outburst that precedes its time. 

HaRav Kook writes a similar idea: “When one follows an elevated idea which is drawn from the Divine Spirit, or any form of lofty wisdom or expression, without being personally connected to the Torah and its ways, or the qualities and virtues it teaches – then such is the sin of Nadav and Avihu” (Orot HaKodesh, 3, p. 340).   

In other words, when one tries to achieve spiritual connectedness by disregarding the mitzvot, the result is a terrible downfall.  One cannot lead a spiritual life without taking into account our mundane reality and the Godly commandments which were intentionally given to infuse spirituality into this physical reality. 

There have been a number of unfortunate cases, demonstrating the above, during the course of Jewish history.  The most well-known of these was Shabbetai Tzvi, the false messiah (1626-1676), who proposed a type of Divine worship, avodat Hashem, which focused on seeing the Divine good in everything, but disregarded the mitzvot.  Ultimately, his followers (Yaakov Frank and his disciples) detached themselves from the Jewish people and became Christians, leaving about half of the Jewish people broken and hopeless in the face of a messiah that turned out to be false. 

A surge of spirituality, even with the best of intentions, is not a good thing.  This is precisely what is meant by the turn of phrase “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. 

A tremendous educational lesson can be learned from all of this: even if an individual or a group of people mean well, and all they desire is to glorify God’s name in the world – this cannot involve shortcuts.  The mitzvot were given so that events unfold at the right pace.  Shortcuts may lead to catastrophe.  Korach was right in saying that Divine revelation is meant for all the people, and not only for Moshe and Aharon; however, he was wrong in his attempt to nullify Moshe and Aharon’s leadership.  His followers, too, were devoured by God’s fire…

Good intent is what guides us.  We desire to make everyone feel God’s presence in this world.  We wish all to believe that God’s ways are just.  Of this it is said that God counts a good intent like a good deed.  Good intent is also what gives us strength and channels us in the right direction.  It is the guiding star which helps us navigate.  But especially when navigating, one must be cautious of shortcuts.  It is precisely when one tries to cut long processes short that the good intent may pave the road to hell and bring about spiritual destruction. 

So how can we distinguish between good intent that leads to good and one which leads astray?  The answer is – through the mitzvot, the halakha.  Every posek halakha (Torah scholar who decides upon matters of Jewish law), as well as every Jew who abides by the halakha knows full well that the world of halakha is a dynamic one.   That said, there are also clear definitions as to who may give halakhic verdicts and upon which criteria these must be based.  This is precisely the blessed process of which we spoke earlier, the one which will eventually bring about Tikkun Olam and the Final Redemption. 

May we merit both speedily in our days. Amen. 

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