Matot: It’s the Thought

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Finish Line
07 Jul 2010

“All’s well that ends well” is one of many pithy maxims that enter our world from the backdoor of Western culture. While most aphorisms seem harmless enough and this particular one bespeaks a generally cheerful attitude, it behooves the reflective Jew to examine all notions emanating from one’s mouth [perhaps even more, but at least as much, as one considers what one puts in it]

So here goes: If it ends well, then is it all good?

Surprisingly, it is this very attitude that Yosef expresses to his quite-shocked siblings when they discover that the viceroy of Egypt is none other than their brother whom they had sold to Egypt: [Bereishis, 45:5-7]

…They came close [to him] and he said, “I am Yosef your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not worry, and do not be angry with yourselves that you sold me here; for it was to preserve life that Elokim sent me [here] before you. For it is [now] two years that there has been famine in the land; and for another five years there will be no plowing or harvest.

Even sharper is Yosef’s formulation many years later as the brothers’ return from burying their father [50:19-20]

Yosef said to them, “Fear not. For am I in place of Elokim? You meant to do evil to me, but Elokim meant it for good, in order to do as it is today, to preserve the lives of a great people.

Such logic however, taken in a vacuum, is absurd. Does intention really play no role? Is the (attempted) murderer who misses his target to be condoned? And what of the Israeli bus driver who inspires great prayer with his reckless driving – does that now become a mitzvah? (I hope not). At the heart of the matter is intent and in Judaism, intent does matter. Thus Yosef, explain the commentaries, sought to console and to mend relationships (1), not to pardon – to soften the blow as it were; At the end of the day however, the brothers had to reckon with their actions.

We must yet probe, for what are we to make of that foiled sinner, the one who intended and acted in sin, only to find out that he was unsuccessful in the endeavor through no fault of his own? Here, our parsha, with the help of a fascinating gemara and Rambam, illuminates. The context: the wife who makes an oath that is annulled by her husband [who may nullify specific types of oaths known as inuy nefesh]. The text reads: [Bamidbar, 30:9]

But, if on the day her husband hears about it .. he then annuls her vow which was upon her, … and Hashem will forgive her.

An obvious question: What need is there for forgiveness when the husband nullified her oath? A remarkable statement of Rabbi Akiva helps to clarify [Kiddushin 81b]:

Of whom does the Torah speak? Of a woman who made a nazirite vow and her husband heard of it and annulled it; but though she was unaware that her husband had annulled it, she drank wine and defiled herself through the dead.

In other words, the husband may nullify his wife’s oath even when he is not in her presence. The wife, who still thinks she is bound, proceeds to violate her oath – only to find out that it has been revoked. The text, by stating And Hashem will forgive her, teaches that even though she did not formally violate her oath, she nevertheless must receive atonement.

Upon this explication, the gemara dramatically comments [Kiddushin 80b]

When R. Akiba came to this verse, he wept. If of him who intended to eat pig (non kosher) but accidentally ate sheep (kosher), the Torah decreed requires atonement; how much more so of him who intended to eat pig and actually ate pig!

It is interesting to note that Rabbi Akiva – well known for laughing at unexpected moments – is the one who quite unexpectedly cries (2). We shall yet return to this point.

Rambam records and clarifies this notion: [Nedarim, 12:18]

If she took an oath and her husband annulled it … and she did not know and violated the oath intentionally, she is exempt even though she intended for prohibition since her oath became permitted and on this the Torah writes “And Hashem shall forgive her” and she receives Rabbinic lashes for she intended to violate the prohibition.

Thus, mere negative intention requires atonement even as the Torah provides no formal consequences [such as sacrifice or lashes]. Thus Rabbinic law created a consequence to concretize that an actual violation took place.

A poignant, enigmatic and sad midrash takes this notion to an even deeper place (3):

Every time R. Hiyya b. Ashi fell upon his face [in personal supplication] he used to say, ‘The Merciful save us from the Evil Inclination’ One day his wife heard him. ‘Let us see,’ she reflected, ‘it is so many years that he has held aloof from me [presumably from advanced age]: why then should he pray thus?’ One day, while he was studying in his garden, she adorned herself and repeatedly walked up and down before him. ‘Who are you?’ he demanded. ‘I am Harutha [a well known harlot], and have returned to-day,’ she replied. He desired her. Said she to him,‘Bring me that pomegranate from the uppermost bough.’ He jumped up, went, and brought it to her. When he re-entered his house, his wife was firing the oven, whereupon he ascended and sat in it. ‘What means this?’ she demanded. He told her what had befallen. ‘It was I,’ she assured him; but he paid no heed to her until she gave him proof. ‘Nevertheless,’ said he, ‘my intention was for a forbidden thing.’ All his remaining days he fasted in repentance until he died…

With Yosef we commenced and with him we shall conclude. In a deeply mystical notion [which means don’t ask me to explain it], Yismach Moshe draws upon the classic midrash that links the death of the ten martyrs (4) with Yosef’s sale – which was implemented by his ten brothers. [a theme we visit on Tisha B’av and Yom Kippur]. The great mystics explain the connection stems from the spiritual reality that they [the brothers and the martyrs] possessed the same souls. Specifically, Rabbi Akiva’s soul was that of Shimon, a ringleader in Yosef’s sale.

Rabbi Akiva’s cries take on a deeper meaning. It is as if he is saying:

If only intention would not matter and if only Yosef’s consolation would be true [in the realm of judgment] – but alas intention matters greatly and there will yet be a heavy price to pay.

R. Akiva who understood the deeper realities of life sensed the foreboding judgment – because all is not well even if it ends well, if you intended otherwise. Thus, Rabbi Akiva cries very deeply for himself and for Klal Yisrael.

Many nuances within this notion need to be worked out (5) and yet the basic message that emerges is one we should consider. In our relationship with Hashem (and yes with all others) it is not the result that is the sole arbiter of success – or failure – it is the inner world of thought and desire that help us forge bonds that penetrate to the deepest core of our existence.

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander


1. Cf. Ramban and Ohr Hachaim ibid, who explain in this vein.

2. It is moving that Rabbi Akiva cries here. We are often used to seeing him laugh when the whole world cries (when the foxes trot on the destroyed ruins of the Holy of Holies, when his Rebbe, R. Eliezer is dying , when the Romans are partying and when he is dying) and here he cries. In fact Rabbi Akiva cries in several places, e.g. – when he reads Shir HaShirim. It appears that Rabbi Akiva cries when you expect him to be happy and is happy when you expect him to cry. The common denominator is seeing beyond the obvious and drawing very deep conclusions.

3. R. Tzadok HaKohen [Takanas Hashavin 6] draws our attention to Yishai, whom the Talmud counts as one of four people who died without sin, even as the midrash teaches us that he separated from his wife Nitzeves (for halachic reasons beyond our scope). She dressed up and he had relations with her and from this union emerged David. Rav Tzadok asks how we can conclude that Yishai did not sin in light of our gemara.

וגם מה שאמר על אמו בחטא שוגג ועל אביו עוון היינו כמו שאמרו ז”ל (ילקוט המכירי תהלים קי”ח) על פסוק (תהלים קט”ז, ט”ז) עבדך בן אמתך שביקש ישי לבוא על שפחתו, ונראה ודאי לא היתה שפחה כנענית דצדיק כישי שמת בעטיו של נחש אי אפשר ליחס לו חטא גמור ואפילו שנזדמן אשתו מכל מקום הרי בכהאי גוונא כתיב (במדבר ל’, ו’) וה’ יסלח לה ונקרא חטא ואיך אמרו עליו דמת בעטיו של נחש: ונראה דהיתה אמה העבריה ועל כן נאמר בלשון הכתוב אמתך והיה יכול לייעדה ותהיה אשתו אלא שהרגיש שאינה בת זוגו, ומכל מקום דוד המלך ע”ה קרי לנפשיה בן אמתך על ידי שהיא בצדקתה גרמה לידתו

4. Ten great Rabbinic scholars who died during the Hadrianic persecutions.

5. Cf. Kiddushin 40a which seems to state that bad thoughts per se (with the exception of idolatrous and licentious thoughts) do not require teshuva: Good intention is considered as deed,… Said R. Assi: Even if one [merely] thinks of performing a precept but is forcibly prevented the Torah ascribes it to him as though he has performed it. Evil intention is not considered as deed for it is said: If I regarded iniquity in my heart, The Lord would not hear. Rav Moshe Feinstein distinguishes between pure thought vs. thought and action. The noxious mixture of improper thought with a follow through requires teshuva even if it does not result in a formal sin.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.