The Importance of Good Intentions

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intentionby Efraim Vaynman

I. Noble Intentions

The need for specific intent in even the most objectively proper religious acts seems odd but speaks to a basic truth about Judaism and the relationship between man and God. The opening line of this week’s parasha reads (Ex. 25:2):

דבר אל בני ישראל ויקחו לי תרומה מאת כל איש אשר ידבנו לבו תקחו את תרומתי.

Speak to the children of Israel that they take for me a contribution, from every man whose heart prompts him to give, you shall take a donation.

Rashi quotes the Tanchuma which comments, “take for me a contribution—for my sake.” That is to say the donor must have the right intentions when giving the donation. He must give it for God. But what exactly does that mean? Isn’t any donation to the Temple for God? What specifically must the donor have in mind?

Perhaps the Torah is trying to preclude donations given for ignoble intentions. People donate money for all kinds of reasons that are not necessarily righteous. People often will give donations to receive honor, to secure future favors, or just to get the donation solicitor to leave them alone.

Although this explanation seems like the most simple and straightforward understanding of the Tanchuma, it is problematic. The Talmud teaches that one that gives tzedaka for ulterior motives has still done a mitzvah. In fact, the Talmud (Rosh HaShana 4a) says, “One who [gives money to charity and] says, ‘I am giving this money so that my sick son will recover or so that I will merit a portion in the world-to come,’ is a completely righteous person.”

Later in the parasha Rashi makes a similar comment, this time on the verse (Ex. 25:8) “They shall for make Me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.” There also he explains, “they should make for My sake a house of holiness.” The building of the Mishkan must also be for God.

Again we are presented with the same question; why are noble intentions so important when building or even just donating to the building the mikdash?

We find that the importance of the right intentions is stressed when performing other mitzvot as well. The Torah tells us (Deut. 22:12) “You shall make for yourself tassles on the four corners of your covering” – to put tzitzit on our garments. Here too the language specifically says “make for yourself,” which is superfluous, since the verse already says that tzitzit must be hung on your own garment. Chazal (Sukkah 9a) explain that the extra words are there to teach us that the tzitzit are to be made specifically for the mitzvah of tzitzit.

The same specific intentions are also required in the manufacturing of Sifrei Torah, tefillin, and mezuzot. Matzah also needs to be made specifically for the mitzvah. The right intentions are so important that if they were made without them, the matzah or Sefer Torah are invalid.

II. Noble Awareness

Maimonides, in a responsum (Blau Ed. 334), explains why it is so important to keep in mind the mitzvah while manufacturing Sifrei Torah and tefillin. He explains that when one keeps in mind that the work that he is doing will be used for a mitzvah, one will make sure to craft the Sefer Torah in the best possible fashion, and this will ensure that the Sefer Torah lasts for a long time. The additional intent enhances longevity. This reason can be used to explain why there is a requirement that one have the right intentions when making the vessels for the temple. If one constantly thinks while he is working that this item he is making is for use in God’s temple, he will ensure he does an excellent job, making sure the final product is perfect.

Maimonides’ reason sufficiently explains the requirement for the special intentions demanded during the manufacturing of mitzvah objects, but it falls short in explaining the special intentions required in our parasha. As we mentioned earlier, Rashi makes two comments about intentions in our parasha; once when talking about making the mikdash, but also when speaking about donating the raw materials for making the Mishkan. While conceivably even an expert craftsman such as Betzalel who fashioned the vessels of the Mishkan would do a better job if he bore in mind that the vessels were to be used in the Temple, how does one’s intention when donating the raw materials affect the quality of the vessels made from them? Apparently there is more to the requirement of the right intentions than just a concern for the material quality of the mitzvot.

Perhaps the difference lies in the nature of the mitzvot. There is a fundamental difference between giving money to charity and giving that same money to the Temple. Someone who gives tzedaka is doing a mitzvah that is between man and his fellow, while one who gives to the Temple is doing a mitzvah between man and God. When one gives money to the poor they have been helped. One’s intentions, whatever they might be, don’t really make a difference to the poor people. Whether it is because one is truly benevolent or just getting rid of some unwanted change, the poor have been helped. They benefit either way.

However, when one gives money to the Temple, one is essentially giving it to God. God doesn’t need our money. The Midrash (Midrash Aggadah ad loc.) commenting on these very words of “לי, for me,” says that it is an allusion to (Haggai 2:8) “Mine (לי) is the silver, and Mine the gold, says the Lord of hosts.” Everything belongs to God.

Donating to the Temple is not an inherently good deed. When one gives something to God, one is making a connection to God by giving away something they hold valuable. But the connection will only be there if there if one has the right intentions. Whatever one gives is really immaterial to the mitzvah. What counts here is one’s intention. רחמנא ליבא בעי – God desires the heart!

III. Between Man and God

This explanation holds true for the other mitzvot as well. All of them are mitzvot that are between man and God. Wearing tzitzit or tefillin is an act of allegiance to God. We are making a connection to God by wearing things that remind us of Him and his commandments. But these acts not inherently good deeds. If we are not thinking about the mitzvot when we do them, we are lacking the fundamental feature of the mitzvah. Intentions are what make the physical act count.

Many mitzvot involve physical acts in our relationship with a God that has no form, a combination that seems odd at first. This relates to a psychological reality of the human condition. People naturally have difficulty relating to things with which they cannot physically interact. The reason why there are adherents to idol worship is because of the human need to see and touch what they are worshipping.

God gave us mitzvot that involve physical actions so that we can come close to him through these actions. There is a certain closeness that can be felt through these physical actions that we wouldn’t feel otherwise. But these mitzvot are only meaningful if we put our mind and our hearts into them. Only then can we elevate the physical act and make it a spiritual one.

But it is not easy to always have the right intentions all the time. Putting on tefillin every morning, it is easy to forget why we are doing it. How can we ensure that we do the mitzvot with the right intentions?

Perhaps that is the reason the Torah requires us to have the right intentions even when preparing the object of the mitzvah. Of course the actual performance of the mitzvah is when the right intentions are crucial.  However, the Torah required that we concentrate on the reason we are doing the mitzvah even when preparing the object of the mitzvah so that we will further ingrain in ourselves the reason we are doing the mitzvah. By making the object of the mitzvah with the specific intention to use it for a mitzvah, will help create a strong connection between the mitzvah object and the proper intent of the mitzvah. Taking a more active role in the preparation the mitzvah serves to reinforce within us the proper devotion we must have when performing the actual mitzvah.

This idea is hinted at in the verse itself. “They shall for make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” It doesn’t say “dwell in it” but “dwell among them.” The Alshich (ad loc.) explains that God will dwell in the heart of each of us. Only if we are careful to have the proper thoughts when doing mitzvot will we merit that God come close to us and dwell in our hearts.

About Efraim Vaynman

Efraim Vaynman is an Editorial Intern at Torah Musings. He is a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary while concurrently pursuing an MA in Talmud at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. Previously, Efraim studied in yeshivot Brisk and Beth Medrash Gevoha.

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