The Limits of Good Intentions

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by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Vayeira

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: If one gives charity to an undeserving person or organization, have they  fulfilled the mitzvah of tzedakah?

Looking up, he [Avraham] saw three men standing near him. Perceiving this, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground. (Genesis 18:2)

While Avraham may have been under the impression that he was performing an act of righteousness by welcoming in and feeding these men, there was an element of futility since these men – who were, in fact, angels – did not require sustenance. Did Avraham then not fulfill a mitzvah – was his charitable act of feeding the angels all for naught? 

The Talmud (Bava Kamma 16b) ostensibly indicates that an act of kindness is assessed based on the result rather than one’s intentions. Following false accusations of impropriety and other malicious deeds, Yirmiyahu formulated an imprecation against the people of Anasos: 

Rava interpreted a verse homiletically: What is the meaning of that which is written: “Let them be made to stumble before You; deal with them in the time of Your anger” (Jeremiah 18:23)? It means that Yirmiyahu said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, even at a time when they try to perform acts of charity, make them stumble by ensuring that they do so with people who are unworthy of charity in order that they should not receive the reward for helping them.

Thus, even when these wicked people did intend to perform an act of charity, God would ensure that it ended up in the hands of an unworthy recipient. (See Yad Ramah, Bava Basra 9b for an elaboration on this idea.) However, if the people of Anasos attempted to perform a mitzvah, why should they not be rewarded for efforts? This is contradicted by the Talmud in Kiddushin (40a) which teaches us that one’s intentions do matter:

[The Holy One, Blessed be He,] links a good thought to an action, as it is stated: “Then they that feared the Lord spoke one with the other, and the Lord listened, and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him, for them that fear the Lord, and that think upon His name” (Malachi 3:16). The Gemara explains: What is the meaning of the phrase “and that think upon His name”? Rav Asi said: Even if a person intended to perform a mitzvah but due to circumstances beyond his control he did not perform it, the verse ascribes him credit as if he performed the mitzvah [, as he is among those that think upon His name].

This Gemara explicitly tells us that one is rewarded for attempting to perform a mitzvah- even if he is not successful, due to external circumstances. Why then would the people of Anasos not receive Divine reward for intending to provide charity to the right recipients? 

1) One reconciliation is offered by R. Yechezkel Landau (cited in Ahavas Tziyon, treatise no. 10) who distinguishes between commandments that are interpersonal, such as charity, and commandments that strictly govern the relationship between God and man. The purpose of ritual commandments such as taking the four species on Sukkos or wearing tefillin on a daily basis is to cultivate one’s bond with the Divine. Therefore, should one reasonably exert themselves to perform a ritual mitzvah, yet circumstances beyond his control prevent him from seeing it to fruition, he would still receive Divine reward because he demonstrated his intent to bolster his relationship with God. On the other side of the coin, if one takes a lulav or wears tefillin for a purpose other than the mitzvah it would not be a proper fulfillment, since his does not have the correct intentions. (A thorough treatment of the topic of mitzvos tzerichos kavanah is beyond the scope of this piece.)

Conversely, interpersonal commandments, such as charity, are meant to ensure that the beneficiaries are supported. Since the purpose is to yield a desired result, if the right parties do not receive the funds then the benefactor has not fulfilled the mitzvah. (Interestingly, when we follow this logic to its conclusion we learn that one who even inadvertently gives charity to an appropriate recipient would fulfill the mitzvah even if it was not their intention to do so!) 

Based on R. Landau’s distinction we can make sense of the contradictory Talmudic passages: The people of Asanos, despite their good intentions, did not fulfill the mitzvah of charity since it resulted in unworthy individuals receiving it. Whereas, the Gemara in Kiddushin, which places the emphasis on one’s intentions, is limited to ritual commandments.

2) Unlike R. Landau’s dichotomy, which distinguished between ritual and interpersonal commandments, R. Mordechai Carlebach zeroes in on the nature of the latter category. In truth, every act of kindness and altruism consists of two facets: (A) “And you shall walk in His ways” (Deut. 28:9) – the imperative to emulate God. (B) “And you shall love thy neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) – an obligation to aid our fellow Jew. When one fulfills an interpersonal commandment they are simultaneously accomplishing something positive vis-a-vis God and humankind. The imperative to walk in the ways of God is contingent on one’s intent while the efficacy of demonstrating love for one’s neighbor is quantified based on the outcome. 

Accordingly, the people of Anasos clearly did not achieve the interpersonal element of the mitzvah of charity, since their donations did not ultimately reach the hands of worthy recipients. R. Carlebach futher suggests that even when these wicked men did perform the act of charity it was not done truly done out of a sense of subservience to God – thus they did not even receive reward for emulating God’s ways, since they were philosophically disinterested in following in the ways of the Divine. 

However, we know that Avraham certainly wished to follow in the path of God. Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Deos 1:7) writes:

Since the Creator is called by these terms and they make up the middle path which we are obligated to follow, this path is called “the path of God.” This is [the heritage] which our Patriarch Abraham taught his descendants, as [Genesis 18:19] states: “for I have known Him so that he will command his descendants…to keep the path of God.” One who follows this path brings benefit and blessing to himself, as [the above verse continues]: “so that God will bring about for Abraham all that He promised.”

While in feeding the angels, Avraham may have not fulfilled achieved the outcome of “love your neighbor,” he certainly received Divine reward for emulating the attributes of God – so much so that Avraham serves as the paradigm and consummate example of what it means to walk in God’s ways. 

When we donate or dedicate our time to performing acts of kindness for others, we should certainly be mindful about how we can best allocate our limited resources. Though, we should also rest-assured that as long as we make a good-faith effort, with due diligence and the right intentions, we already achieve the lofty level of walking in the ways of God.

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria, Chabad.org, Mechon Mamre, and my own. Contact: [email protected] 

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

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