Doing Good and Being Good
Matot-Masay (Numbers 30-36 )
Intention defines the act.
When the Jewish people are given the command to attack the Midianites, no mention is made of the Moabites who were their partners in crime. Just to remind you, these two lovely nations firstly tried to have the Jewish people cursed. Once that was unsuccessful, they sent young women to seduce the Jewish men into unseemly behavior and idol worship. If both nations were in it together, however, why does God command Moses to attack only the Midianites? And, along similar lines, why does my spellchecker like the word Moabite, but not Midianite. Why do both God and Microsoft favor the Moabites over the Midianites?
Rashi, the great Medieval commentator, answers that there was a fundamental difference between the two nations: While the Moabites attacked out of fear that the Jewish people were a military threat, the land of Midian was not in the path of the Jewish travels. The Midianites became involved purely out of hatred. What Moab did, albeit wrong, was understandable. What Midian did was simply evil.
In Judaism, motivation is everything. Kill a man because you hate him and there is little worse. Kill a man because he is about to kill someone else – you are credited with saving a life.
If you give charity because you care deeply, you are a good man. If you give charity because you want the honor of doing so, then the harm can often outweigh the good that you have done. If you give charity because you want to control and manipulate the person to whom you give, then you are evil. The action is exactly the same, but the motivation makes all the difference.
Of course, by doing a good action, we accustom ourselves to doing good. Likewise, nine times out of ten, good motivation will bring good action, and bad motivation will bring bad action. But that is not always the case.
This point is very important when carried over to our self-image. Often we try to be good and fail. Not true. If you tried to be good, you succeeded – because you tried. If you didn't try to be good, you failed – even if you succeeded. In Judaism, it is the road to Heaven, not Hell, that is paved with good intentions – as long as that intention is pure, and a responsible effort is made.