What is more important, intent or action? From a legal and social point of view action is more important than intent. This is not to suggest that intent doesn’t have its place in the legal system. Occasionally, intent, or the lack of it, will affect the ruling or outcome of a judgment. However, for the most part, society must ignore intent and focus on action.
The Chovos Halivavos explains that the Laiv – the heart, not the Moach – the brain is used metaphorically to describe the seat of human intellect. The brain suggests intellect divorced from emotion. The heart suggests emotion in the service of the intellect. It was never G-d’s intention to ignore intent as a factor in justice – just the opposite. During the High Holidays, G-d is described as the Choker Laiv – the One Who investigates the heart – the only Judge Who can factor intent and emotion into the equation of justice.
In the second Parsha of this week’s double Parsha, there is a definite emphasis on the intent behind the action. The Torah’s account of the Mishkan’s building campaign, the donations of precious materials, time and talent is liberally punctuated by 14 grammatical constructions of the word Laiv. For example: (35:5) “Everyone whose heart motivates him.” (35:21) “Every man whose heart inspired him.” (35:25) “Every wise-hearted woman.” (35:26) “All women whose heart inspired them.”
From the liberal usage of the word Laiv – heart as a criterion for the building of the Mishkan we see the Torah’s focus on intent. Why? What difference did it make why a person gave his or her donation. The focus should have been on getting the Mishkan built in the most beautiful and expedient way possible.
Imagine the Rabbi who appeals to his congregants for a building campaign but says, “Only those of you who really want to give money should do so.” ” I will only accept donations from those of you who are giving for the right reasons.” Buildings would not get built and Rabbis would be out of business. Why was proper intent so important in the construction of the Mishkan?
In 1942, Rav Dessler lectured the Gateshead Kollel on this very topic. His focus was not this week’s Parsha or the building of the Mishkan. The focus of his Shiur was to explain the importance of intent in the performance of Mitzvos. (Strive for Truth, Part Two, The Mitzvos of the heart. pg.86-94)
Rav Dessler explains that all actions are preceded by some degree of intent, whether conscious or not. Some times intent translates into action and other times not. If the intent is positive, the Rabbis tell us that G-d credits us and rewards us even if the intent never translates into action. On the other hand, if the intent is negative and circumstances do not allow for it to actualize, G-d does not hold it against us. He does not punish for intent alone.
The truth is that G-d should punish and reward us for our intentions. Intent is more closely akin to the spiritual realm than action. Actions are physical and limited; thoughts are ethereal and expansive. In the spiritual realm the focus cannot be on action. Circumscribed physical actions have no relationship to the unlimited world of the spirit. Intent and thoughts are the only medium that can bridge the physical and the spiritual. (Chovos Halivavos)
In fact, thoughts are far more within our control than our actions and therefore more deserving of reward and punishment. Allow me to explain. Actions depend upon circumstances; intentions depend upon us. Whether or not any given intent will ever come into fruition depends upon incalculable circumstances working in concert with each other. Intentions only depend upon the level of our moral and spiritual discipline. In other words, it depends upon us.
Rav Dessler explains the statement, “Thoughts of a sin are worse than the sin itself,” (Yoma 29a) as follows. A sin is an action that is circumscribed and contained. Do Teshuva and the sin is forgiven. The negative action is offset by the positive action of penance. However, the action originated in an intent that is rooted in the heart of the sinner. The action may be corrected but the evil root still remains. Uprooting the evil root is far more difficult than doing penance for the sin. Therefore, Chazal said, “Thoughts of a sin are worse than the sin itself.” Therefore, the fact that G-d does not punish us for our sinful thoughts and desires is an expression of His kindness and benevolence.
The same is true for positive thoughts and the desire and intent to do Mitzvos. The outcome of the intent may not be within our control. That depends upon G-d Who controls the universe. However, the thought and intent behind the desire depends on us. Therefore, G-d credits us for a positive intent and desire as if it had been actualized into action.
The organization of the Ten Commandments proves that intent is the most important component in our relationship with G-d. Many of the commentaries explain the sequence of the commandments as advancing from thought to action to thought. The Ten Commandments start with Belief in G-d and advances into the religious, familial and social applications of that belief. Finally, it culminates with, “Do not covet…”
It would appear that truly G-d fearing people must advance to the point where they do not even desire what is not theirs. They must reach the level where they do not even have the intent to sin!
This week’s Parsha begins with the Mitzvah of Shabbos followed by an accounting of the building of the Mishkan. Rashi quoted the Mechilta that explains the relationship between the two. “The Torah preceded the accounting of the Mishkan with the Mitzvah of Shabbos to teach us that the building of the Mishkan does not take precedent over keeping the Shabbos.”
Shabbos, as we know, proclaims G-d’s mastery and dominion over both nature and society. The Mishkan represents G-d’s divine presence, the Shechina, dwelling in the midst of the Jewish nation. The two institutions, Shabbos and the Mishkan, help us attain the level of intent in the service of G-d, not just action posing in service to G-d.
The Mishkan was created with action. “Every wise hearted among you… come and make everything that G-d has command.” (35:10) Shabbos is respected primarily by restricting our action. “For six days you are to labor, however on the seventh day… whoever does work shall be put to death.” (35:2) On the one hand, the only means we have for serving G-d is through physical action. On the other hand, physical action should be a manifestation of our spiritual yearning and intent.
The Mishkan representing the physical manifestation of our service to G-d (offerings, prayers, etc.) was formed through the limited physical resources and talents of the people. However, G-d and Moshe insisted that those limited resources be motivated by the proper intent. The physical Mishkan would represent the intent of its creators. If their intentions were selfish, the Mishkan would edify human limitations and avarice. If their intentions were noble and G-dly the Mishkan would represent the Shechina dwelling among the nation. Therefore, the insistence was on Laiv – heart. The focus had to be on the intent more so than the action.
However, in order to underscore the focus and intent of G-d’s commandment to build the Mishkan, G-d first commanded the nation to keep the Shabbos. The message could not be any clearer. The importance of the Mishkan was not in the physical beauty and majesty of its construction. The beauty and importance of the Mishkan was in the desire and intent of the nation to be close to their G-d and live by His laws.
Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.