It seems that in Judaism, the deed counts more than the intention.
There are many examples.
You did damage but you meant well doesn’t mean that you don’t pay up.
An English saying goes: Deeds speak louder than words. And the Rabbis agree. Feelings and thoughts are fleeting things but deeds rub the acts into you. Repeated deeds shape your character. Even uttering words does.
Mere intention is sterile. The way to Hell is paved with good intentions.
It’s the worst to hate someone and not save him, better to love him but not save him, better still, to save him but not love him and the best to save him and love him. Better a good deed than only a good intention.
(Also, saving someone, in time, opens your heart to love him; in reverse order, by the time your love starts working, the other might be dead.)
Earthly punishment does not depend on intention. Someone who must be executed must be encouraged to repent so that the Heavenly Court will have nothing on him. But repentance does not mitigate the verdict.
The Rabbis agree that a lose bad thought unconnected to a deed is almost always free of charge. Thoughts are free. Deeds are material.
So, the tangible world, good deeds, should lead the way?
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But there are also many examples of Judaism stressing intention over deed.
The Rabbis disagree if a good deed needs good intention to be virtuous.
But for sure, a good deed regretted prevents any Heavenly reward.
Moreover, we are not even rewarded for our good deeds (since what actually happens is not in our hands) – only for things as intangible as intention, preparation and effort.
Before the Heavenly Throne, any measure of enjoyment from a misdeed is punishable and any measure of regret mitigates punishment.
A bad deed regretted that is pardoned by any wronged party is not punished in Heaven and less on Earth.
If the regret is prompted by fear of Heaven, the sin is erased; if it’s from love of G^d, it’s rewarded as if the opposite Commandment was done.
A wish to perform a good deed that we are completely unable to honor is rewarded as if we performed it in the best fashion possible.
A (relative) inability to not do a bad deed renders us (relatively) guiltless.
The Rabbis teach that G^d wants the heart, that a deed without intention is like a body without a soul. Get off the automatic pilot!
G^d is generous, He rewards good deeds. How is that generous? That seems only just. His generosity lies in that He ignores how much we dreaded doing a good deed and only looks at how we feel after it. And generally, after we fact, we rejoice in having done something good.
(Which doesn’t take away that eagerness to do good is rewarded too.)
This seems to support the Israeli saying: The essence lies in the intention (ha’ikar hakavanah).
Classical Christianity goes even so far as to promote only the intention. It sees the sublunary as inferior to the Heavenly Kingdom, and the act as less than the intent. All you need is love – that kind of thing.
(Probably so much so, that it rubs off on the Jew in America, who find Chanukah more of an important Jewish Feast than Israeli Jews but light their chanukiahs less than them – seeming more “Jews at heart.”)
In an extreme example, trying to convert Jews out of strict Monotheism (the Chanukah story) is worse than trying to kill them (the Purim story). The latter threatens their temporary natural lives but the former could take away their eternal supernatural afterlives, Heaven forbid.
So, the invisible world, good intentions, should come first?
* * *
Then, which one is it, deed or intention?
Mere intention is sterile. But a thoughtless act is like a body without a soul.
When the pick is between loving and saving, which should we prioritize?
My solution is the following.
Before the deed, the (in)action is of the essence. If it’s a good deed, do it. If it’s a bad deed, don’t do it.
But, as soon as that choice has passed, the intention becomes the essence. Done a good deed or rejected a bad deed? Rejoice in it – don’t regret it. Refrained from a good deed or done a bad deed? Regret it, including any good feelings that one got about that bad inaction or action. And ask forgiveness from Man and G^d (in that order) and pay any penalties.
In short: Before the deed, the deed is the essence. After the fact, the intention became the essence. Easy, no? Do you agree?
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The Commentators are divided over the question if Reuben tried to save Joseph (Genesis 37:21-22, 29) altruistically, for his sake, or for his own sake.
Well, Reuben said (Genesis 37: 22) “and send no hand against him.” Sounds familiar? Earlier (Genesis 22:12) an Angel needed to stop Abraham with the words “do not send your hand.” The here quoted words from each verse in Hebrew have the same grammatical value. May I suggest that this parallel pleads for Reuben. There, a Heavenly messenger had to stop the First Patriarch. Here, his human grandson brought down this interruption to earth. When you do Angels’ works, you’re doing very well!