It's Not Really the Thought That Counts
For the past several years, our brethren in Israel have faced terrorism of the most horrendous kind. Dozens of suicide bombings, numerous sniper shootings, thousands dead, thousands of serious injuries, thousands of "light injuries," thousands traumatized, a country living in fear, and there is no end in sight.
Jews worldwide have struggled to cope and to react, feeling helpless to do anything that could stop the madness.
Many of us are numb to any and all tragedies now. Can anything move us anymore? Do we still know how to cry? Do we hear about the latest bombing, ask where, when, how many, and take our next bite of dinner? Yes, we think about how terrible "the situation"' is and we sigh, but are thoughts enough?
How can we regain our sensitivity? How can we learn to cry again? What can we do facing the greatest crisis for the Jewish people in recent history? A lesson from this week's Torah portion, Matot, can help.
The opening section of Matot discusses the laws of making and annulling vows. One law mentioned is that a husband has the right to annul his wife's vows if she makes vows that affect their relationship negatively.
Rashi (30:6) describes the following case: "The verse says, 'God will forgive her.' This is describing a case in which a woman took a nazarite vow (no wine, haircuts, or becoming defiled from the dead) and her husband annulled it for her. She was unaware though that it was nullified and she violated her vow by drinking wine and becoming impure from the dead. She needs forgiveness even though her vow had been annulled. And if those whose vows were nullified need forgiveness, how much more do those whose vows have not been nullified."
The woman is being told that she needs atonement and forgiveness for merely intending to commit a transgression without actually committing one. This leads us to a perplexing question. Doesn't this contradict a statement from Talmud Kiddushin 40a, "God does not take evil intentions into account if they were not carried to fruition"? This being the case, why does God hold the woman's evil intentions against her? The fact is that she did not violate her vow, since her husband had annulled it. Why does it matter if she was unaware of his annulment or not?
We derive from the solution of this quandary a fundamental lesson for Jewish living. Actions are what count, not merely thoughts. If you think about murdering someone but never do anything to act upon it, then you've done nothing wrong and God holds nothing against you. But if you make concrete plans to kill, you prepare the weapon, the getaway, and the alibi, but the gun is broken and the shots are not fired, then while it is true that you haven't murdered anyone, it is also true that you will be prosecuted for attempted murder.
"God does not take evil intentions into account if they were not carried to fruition" only applies if the evil intention remained solely in the realm of thought. But if any solid and definitive actions were taken to bring the evil to its realization, the perpetrator needs forgiveness and atonement. Albeit, the atonement will not be as difficult to achieve had the action been carried out just as a criminal gets less jail time for attempted murder than for actual murder.
Actions are what count, not merely thoughts. This applies to performing good and positive deeds as well. Let's face it, does anyone really believe that "it's the thought that counts"? If you get yet another tie for Father's Day, do you really feel that "it's the thought that counts," or do you think that if the person really cared they would have put more effort into finding a more appropriate and meaningful gift? Is it enough to tell your spouse that you thought about calling them during the day, or do you need to actually call for it to be consequential?
Why are actions so important? Why aren't thoughts enough?
Sefer HaChinuch (circa 1300) addresses the issue (paraphrased): "Why did God bind us with so many commandments? Know that a man becomes who he is based on his actions. Thoughts of his heart, and his intentions, always follow the lead of his actions, whether for good or evil. Even a very wicked person, who decides to suddenly perform good actions, will transform quickly into a righteous individual. The same is true for a righteous person who carries out evil actions. He will become evil."
There are other sources that praise the powerful effects actions can have upon a person. Professor William James once wrote: "Action SEEMS to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together. By regulating action, which is under the more direct control of will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not. Thus, the sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness, if our spontaneous cheerfulness be lost, is to sit up cheerfully and to act and speak as if cheerfulness were already there. If such conduct does not make you cheerful, nothing else on that occasion can. So, to feel brave, act as if you are brave, use all of your will to that end, and a courage fit will very likely replace the fit of fear."
The classic mussar (ethical) work, Mesilat Yesharim, by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, circa 1700, (Chapter 7, Chelkai Zerizut -- Steps Toward Enthusiasm) put it this way: "The man whose soul burns in the service of God will certainly not become lazy in the performance of His commandments, but his movements will be like that of a rapid fire. He will not rest or be at ease until the deed is completed. In addition, just as "zerizut," enthusiasm can result from an inner burning, so too it will create one. This means that one who perceives a quickening of his outer, physical movements in the performance of a commandment causes himself to experience an inner flaming movement as well, through which longing and desire will continually grow. If, however, he is sluggish in the movement of his limbs, the movement of his spirit and soul will die down and become extinguished. We all know this from experience."
The feelings of empathy we experience for our brethren in Israel must be attained, but they cannot remain mere feelings. They must translate into actions. We have all, most likely, accepted something upon ourselves and improved spiritually during these tumultuous and tragic times. The question though is whether we have been consistently successful in maintaining our commitments. We must re-assess our status in our new acceptances. And if we find that we have failed, we should reduce them or change focus to another area we find more manageable. In this way, we don't allow our strong, spiritual, compassionate feelings to dissipate without becoming attached to a more permanent and meaningful action. (See Kol Yaakov, ACT, DON'T JUST REACT
Actions are what count, not merely thoughts.
If we cannot naturally cry anymore when we hear of bombings and horrific tragedies in Israel due to our numbness, we must not surrender to what, in effect, becomes apathy. As hard as it has become for us, we must dwell on the tragedies, read of the details, read of the victims, put ourselves in their position, imagine the suffering they have gone through, and cry.
This is our responsibility as Jews to "feel the burden of our colleagues and friends" (Avot 6:6). And what if after all this, we still cannot bring about the pain and tears?
At such a point, we must make ourselves cry, even artificially. We could begin to think of some tragic event that could occur in our lives that might bring us to tears. If this brings us to grief, we can then re-apply our tears to the tragedies in Israel. By externally producing tears, we will affect our deadened internal feelings to a soulful flame of passionate and sincere sadness for the situation in Israel.