Mordechai Silverstein

Intentions Counts

It is not unusual for a verse from the Torah to take on a life of its own, independent of its original context. And so, we have an example of such a verse in Parshat Aharei Mot:

And you shall keep My statutes and My laws which a person shall do and live through them (v’hai bahem), I am the Lord. (Leviticus 18:5)

In context, this verse refers to the avoidance of various forms of sexual license thought to have been practiced by the Egyptians and Canaanites which the Torah views as abhorrent. The verse would seem to suggest that by rejecting these behaviors life would be improved.

Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam – Rashi’s grandson), who was known for his plain-sense (pshat) reading of Scripture, saw in the observance of this verse societal implications on the individual sinner:

For those who do not do so, will be ostracized by their people.

Rashi, though, reads “v’hai bahem – and you shall live through them” as a promise of reward in the world to come:

For if you should say [that the reward is in this world], is it not the case that the person will [ultimately] die, [so where is the reward? Consequently, the reward must be in the world to come].

In contrast, Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman (Ramban, Spain 13th century) reads this verse as a general statement regarding all of the commandments and offers a contrasting view of what “v’hai bahem means:

Laws were given in order that people living in a society to coexistence peacefully, so that no one should harm another nor them kill him… (adapted translation)

Afterwards, Ramban takes this verse to a new level, inspired by it to offer a mini-treatise” on the significance of intention in the performance of the commandments. Note that when we are talking about intention, we are talking about a person’s rationale for the performance of the commandments. Ramban designates four levels of intentions:

“Know that a person’s [reward in] life for the observance of the commandments is in accordance with his preparation for them. [1.] For one who fulfills the commandments not for their own sake, namely, in order to receive a reward, will be rewarded for doing them in this world with longevity, riches, possessions, and honor… [2.] Similarly, those who engage in the observance of the commandments in order to merit by them reward in the World to Come, these being the people who serve God out of fear [of punishment], will be found worthy on account of their intention to be saved from the judgments that will come upon the wicked, and their souls shall abide in joyfulness [in life eternal]. [3.] But those who engage in the observance of the commandments out of love, as is right and proper, together with worldly occupation, similar to what is mentioned in the Torah: “And your threshing shall reach unto the vintage” (Leviticus 26:5), they will merit good life in this world according to the usual nature of things, and in life eternal, in the World to Come, their merits will still be complete before them. [4.] But those who abandon altogether the concerns of this world and pay no attention to it, acting as if they themselves were not creatures of physical being, and all their thoughts and intentions are directed only to their Creator, just as was the case with Elijah, [these people] on account of their soul cleaving to the Glorious Name will live forever in body and soul…”

Even if we set aside the rewards Ramban has assigned to each level of commitment, we are left with a significance lesson. The more we focus on the significance of our commitments, the purer our dedication, the greater the results. Sincerity counts! It counts in our interactions with other and it especially counts in our Jewish lives and our relationship with God.

“V’hai bahem – and you shall live through them”!

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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