Balaam is stopped by an angel while on his way to curse the Israelites, from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicles.
Balaam is stopped by an angel while on his way to curse the Israelites, from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicles.

In this week’s Torah portion, the fine line between intention and action

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Chukat-Balak

Numbers 19:1-25:9


Bilaam, the foreign prophet hired to curse the Israelites, did exactly what he had intended not to do. His intention was to spew hateful words, but due to Divine intervention, Bilaam did exactly the opposite.

This miraculous inconsistency of intention and action can shed light on an age-old yet relevant question: What matters more, intention or action?

Rabbi Norman Lamm z”l, influential rabbi and institutional leader in 20th-century American Modern Orthodox Judaism, who passed away in May, wrote the following in a 1951 sermon on Balak:

“Our thought today, then, centers about this problem of the discrepancy between intention and act, between what you want to do and what you actually do. And our main concern is not with those whose kavanah, intention, is evil (and whose maaseh, act, is good) but rather with the great majority of people, those who find that their intentions are good but who are troubled by the fact that these good intentions are short-circuited and often wind up as improper and sometimes harmful deeds. And let us keep this in mind: behind a great deal of our modern immoralism is not so much downright badness as sincere confusion in transforming a good intention into a good performance.”

Rabbi Lamm insightfully points out that one can hold a self-perception based on intention (kavanah), even if it is not backed up by behavior (maaseh).

The example he provided was, “I am a good Jew at heart.” We can extend this to other self-perceptions such as “I am a good person at heart” or “I am not a bigot or racist at heart.”

Rabbi Lamm critiqued the common rationalization that good intentions suffice in lieu of acts of service of God and others: “As if the heart alone were equipped to do the work of the hands and the feet and the mind!”

This self perception can lure one into a place of complacency. This dichotomy of kavana and maaseh encourages us to ask the question, “What have I done lately? What structures have I helped to build and sustain that are in line with my kavanah, or my self-perception?”

There are also times, Rabbi Lamm points out, that even good intentions can result in behavior that is not helpful, and perhaps even harmful. Those who have even the best intentions can often fail to see them through with action, or even act in ways that are hurtful. Ask yourself: “How well does this action truly align with my kavanah? Is it constructive and kind?”

The haftarah for this week concludes with the famous guiding words of the prophet Micah: “What is good and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Bilaam serves as a reminder to keep a focus on actions. His words might have been of blessing but his actions following speak louder than words.

According to Biblical commentaries, “Bilaam’s word” was instrumental in the sin of the people at Ba’al Peor, as he devised the scheme to entice the Children of Israel in cultic idol worship. Moses alludes to “Bilam’s word” at Ba’al Peor, referring not to the grand public accolades of Bilaam, but rather to the covert maneuver.

Ultimately, Bilaam’s miraculous yet disingenuous statements were betrayed by his behind-the-scenes and damaging actions. And the Children of Israel were lured into actions that challenged their self-perception as a holy people set apart.

Nehama Leibowitz z”l asks: “Why does the Torah not reveal to us in parashat Balak the evil schemes of Bilaam, prior to the description of Israel’s sin, when they became entangled in his corruption? … It seems that the Torah wanted to teach us a great and important lesson here. Although the initiative was Bilaam’s … The Torah recounts only the sin of Israel and their punishment. For the responsibility for an action lies with the one who performs it, and responsibility is personal” (Studies in Bamidbar).

There is a deep responsibility of each individual and institution to examine the consequence of their actions against their good intentions, or overall self conception. Misdirected action can belie grand statements and good intentions.

Rabbi Lamm closed his sermon with the following personal prayer: “Omniscient G-d … no fool can understand the greatness of your thoughts and your works, and no simpleton can appreciate the consistency between your intentions and your deeds. Bless us with wisdom, G-d our Father, so that we your children might also be able to transform our good thoughts into good works.”

Maharat Victoria Sutton
Maharat Victoria Sutton

Maharat Victoria Sutton is the director of education and community engagement at Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.