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Rabbi Shaya's Thoughts

Moral Intelligence

There was a big story in the news this week about how the rich were scheming in illegal ways to get their children admitted into the top universities by bribing sports coaches, administrators, SAT officials, etc. 

Let the legal authorities deal with the legalities of the case. My concern is with the kids. What is the message that they received from their parents? What was the “moral education” that they received? Any “higher” education that they will get at any of these top “VIP” schools has been undermined by their parents’ lack of moral behavior – that they were being taught, and definitely learned. Why bother to invest all this money in an education that will not produce a mensch?

This week we start a new book of the Torah, the third book, and many might say, the most boring of the Five Books of Moses, because it lacks the drama of creation, the turmoil of the Jews in Egypt, the challenges to Moses that occur in the Sinai desert, etc. What is discussed in the book of Vayikra, the book of Leviticus, is sacrifices. Sacrifice is a difficult concept for many to relate to. Why did G-d want to have an animal burnt on the altar? What kind of barbaric behavior was that, let alone think that we will do that again one day with the coming of Moshiach? Why should we even spend time learning about it over and over again every year?  Let us just skip book number three. 

Well, my friends, we must answer this question with another question. What makes sacrifice even more interesting is that the Torah says the sacrifices produced a “pleasing” aroma for G-d!  Really? It is one thing to say that G-d gets pleasure from watching us do what he wants – even if it has no meaning to us, whatsoever. But to say that G-d enjoys animal sacrifices and that it is “pleasing” to G-d is ludicrous! What is that supposed to mean?! 

The answer is that we are missing the point; we are putting the emphasis in the wrong place.  G-d knows how uncomfortable we are bringing an animal as a sacrifice. No one wants to do it, including G-d. So why does He ask it of us? G-d wants to see if we can reach deep into ourselves, find that “animal” within us and make a mensch out of it. Can we “sacrifice” our ego on the altar? Can we put our need to send our children to a “VIP” school aside if they cannot earn admission on their own merits?  If we can, then even our “animal” is a pleasing smell to G-d. We don’t need to offer gold and silver. Being rich and famous is useless to G-d if each one of us is not a mensch. Better to be a pleasant-smelling “animal,” a humble mensch, than a stinky cheater.

When we teach our children moral intelligence, it is a pleasing aroma to G-d. The greatest university is right in our own home. That is, if we are not afraid to say the “G” word. When we talk about G-d, when we say blessings on our food, when we elevate the “animal within us” to a higher level and transform ourselves – and those around us – each to become a mensch, we create a pleasant aroma for G-d.    

Action vs. Intention


Often, I am asked what matters more, when I do a Mitzvah with all its details, even if I don’t have the right intention, or if I do it partially, but I have the right intention? 
 
To rephrase this question and put it in perspective: Which is more significant: if I buy a full bouquet of flowers even if I don’t care for half of them and my heart is not in it, knowing my wife would appreciate the whole bouquet, or if I buy just a few well-selected flowers, and though the bouquet is not as big, the few flowers that were chosen are meaningful to me? 
What carries more weight, the action or the intention? 
 
Let’s try to glean some insight from the Torah.
 
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses counts the silver and copper that was donated to the temple. The gold was not counted, however, because once Moses proved that he was trustworthy just by counting the silver and copper, G-d ordered Moses not to count the gold, and the Jews trusted him. 
 
There is more to say on this subject but not for now. 
 
The interesting thing about how the donations were counted was that it was done by weight, not by value. This is fascinating, since one might presume to pay more for a designer piece of jewelry than for a block of silver. So should a donation be considered more valuable if it is a designer piece of jewelry vs. a block of silver—even though they both will be melted down? From an accounting perspective, the bottom line, they are equal. So why did Moses take an accounting by weight and not by value? 
 
From here we learn a fascinating lesson: It is the action that counts, even more than the intention. It is the silver itself that matters, not the artwork, the design, or the intention – the kavanah – that went into the work. Yes, of course all that matters, as that is the icing on the cake. However, what really matters is the essence of it all, and that is the cake – the giving itself.   
 
Imagine you promise a child that you will give them a prize for learning well and getting a good mark on a test. Then when they succeed, you tell them that you “intended” to keep your promise, and you have all the right intentions, but you didn’t act on it. You failed the child. If however, you come through on the promise, even if you were not in the mood to go to the store to pick up the promised gift, the child is still in seventh heaven. Why? Because your actions speak louder than anything else. 
 
There is no question that when our actions mesh with our intention, we have the best of both worlds, and that is what we strive to achieve. However, we have to remember that it is the action that always is more important. 
In modern times this is called “behavior therapy.“ In the Torah it is called, “behaving like a Jew.” 

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