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Parshat Chukat – Combine Good Actions with Good Intent

Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1 )

Bamidbar, 21:33-34“They turned and ascended by way of Bashan: Og, King of Bashan, went out against them, he and his entire people, to do battle at Edrei. Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Do not fear him, for into your hand have I given him, his entire people, and his land…
Rashi, 21:34, Dh: Al tirah oso: “Moshe was afraid that perhaps the merit of Avraham would stand for him, as it says, ‘and the fugitive came’ – this refers to Og who escaped among the Refaim whom Cardelomer struck…”

When the Jewish people approached the nation of Bashan, their mighty King, Og, met them in battle. God told Moshe not to be afraid, and that they would defeat Og. The fact that God told Moshe not to be afraid implies that he was scared approaching this battle, something we do not see in the lead up to other battles. Rashi, citing the Midrash Tanchuma, exclaims that Moshe was afraid that Og had a long-standing spiritual merit. Hundreds of years earlier, Og told Avraham that Lot had been kidnapped, which resulted in the rescue of Lot.

However, the Midrash elaborates that Og’s motivation in telling Avraham was not pure. He knew that Avraham would try to rescue Lot, and he hoped that Avraham would get killed in the process, enabling Og to marry Avraham’s wife, Sarah. The Kli Yakar1 understands that Moshe did not know Og’s true motives and so was afraid that his merit would protect him in the battle with the Jewish people. Yet, in truth, since his motives were nefarious, he would not be protected. However, it is important to note, that the Midrash Tanchuma does say that, despite his ulterior motives, Og was rewarded with a very long life – he was over 500 years old at the time of this battle.

Rabbi Aron Yehuda Leib Shteinman notes that we learn from here that any action that had positive consequences is rewarded even if the underlying motives were impure, and even nefarious.2 Another, highly significant lesson can be derived from the implication that had Og had pure motives in saving Lot, then it is conceivable that the merit from his distant act of kindness may have even helped him in the battle with the Jewish nation. This teaches that the motivations behind good deeds are of seminal significance in determining the level of merit a person accrues for his good deed.

The question arises, when a person does a good deed without the proper intention, is it considered as if he actually did a Mitzva or is it viewed in a similar way to the action of Og that he accrues a merit but it does not have the spiritual power of a mitzvah? The authorities debate this question, based on their interpretation of a number of cases in Chazal.3 The Sifra states that if a person drops money and a poor person finds it and uses it to support himself, God gives the person a blessing. Some authorities learn from here that even if a person does not have intent to give charity, but someone benefits from it, then it is considered as if he did a mitzvah. Based on this idea, they propose a novel idea.

Jewish law states that ‘mitzvot tzrichot kavannah’ – in order to fulfil a mitzvah, a person must have intent to do the commandment and without such intent, he does not fulfil it. However, based on the above cited Rabbinic source, among other sources, they argue that this does not apply to commandments in the realm of inter-personal relationships.

They explain that there are two types of mitzvot: There are some where the whole purpose of the mitzvah is to do a certain action but there is no tangible result to that action, such as shaking a lulav. In such mitzvot, if the person has no intention, then the action is meaningless as it does not achieve anything.

On the other hand, there are other mitzvot, particularly pertaining to inter-personal relationships, where the purpose is to achieve a certain result, such as giving charity to a poor person. With regard to such mitzvot, even if one did not have intent to do a mitzvah, he nevertheless achieved the ostensible purpose of the commandment, which is to give a poor person money. Thus, they explain that even when a person dropped money and a poor person benefitted from it, they have still fulfilled the mitzvah of giving charity.

However, others argue and hold that doing any Mitzva without intent is not considered to be fulfilling a mitzvah to the fullest. They hold that Mitzvot of inter-personal relationships are no different from other Mitzvot. They explain the Sifra to mean that the person has a merit in the form of a blessing for the fact that someone found his money, but he did not fulfil a Mitzva.4 Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky answered a question in this vein that when a person does a Mitzva in the inter-personal realm without intent, he did not fulfil a Mitzva, but he has a merit.5

This brings us back to the discussion with regard to Og. He did a good deed when he told Avraham about Lot and he was rewarded with the merit of living a very long life. However, the fact that he did not have good intentions in his action meant that his merit was limited. So too, when a person does an action that benefits someone, the intention that he has, will play a huge role in determining the level of reward that he receives.

The practical lesson that emerges from these ideas is the importance of having intent when doing good deeds. This includes seemingly mundane actions such as feeding children and seeing to their needs. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe pointed out how many Mitzvot a person can fulfil through simply having intent through multiple acts of kindness that he does in the home. The same applies to numerous interactions such as paying a taxi driver6, or telling someone the time.

May we all merit to combine good actions with good intent.

By Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen


  1. Kli Yakar, Bamidbar, 12:34.
  2. Ayelet HaShachar, Bamdibar, 12:34.
  3. We will discuss one case above – see Lereyecha Kemocha, Volume 2, Simun 9 for more cases and the various opinions among the Authorities.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ka’ashe Tzivah HaShem, p.48, Os 21.
  6. Whereby one fulfils the Mitzva of paying a worker on time.

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