Don’t be hard on yourself; just expect more

The third aspect of belief is this:

I believe that God knows the impact of even my subconscious thoughts on my actions. Together with this God also knows my capacity to think carefully about what I’m doing; therefore God demands and expects more of me.

There is a Talmudic case which demonstrates this reality. One man whom we’ll call Reuben sees a fire far off in the distance, a fire which was started by Levi. He sees it coming dangerously close to Simon’s crops and he panics. Hoping to protect Simon’s crops he covers them with a heavy cloth. His attempt is not successful. The encroaching fire comes closer and closer until Simon’s crops are engulfed in flames.

Will the court make Reuben pay for Simon’s loss? You might very well say no, of course not. Reuben was only trying to help.

But this is actually a trick question. There’s a detail I neglected to mention. The law stipulates damages cannot be claimed for anything which was covered before a fire got to it. Let’s assume, by the way, that Reuben knows about this law.

It turns out that covering up Simon’s crops in effect prevented Simon from being able to claim damages from Levi who started the fire.

The court tells Reuben that on the one hand he’s not responsible to pay for Simon’s loss because he didn’t actually do anything wrong. He didn’t set Simon’s property on fire. An earthly court can only hold a person responsible for damage he actually goes and does.

On the other hand the court tells him he really should be paying Simon for his loss. The court can’t force him to pay but they tell him that if he will listen to his conscience, he’ll realize that he should pay. In the eyes of heaven he is responsible.

Reuben might argue that he was only trying to help, but his intentions are not a factor to consider here. Why not?

The answer to this question hinges on a different question: What makes you responsible generally? There are two ways we can look at this:

a) You’re responsible only for the effect of your actions, not your thoughts

b) You’re responsible for how your intentions impact your actions

To the first way of looking at it your actions caused damage, regardless of whether you had good intentions or not. A loss is a loss. You’re held accountable and you have a responsibility toward the person who suffered a loss because of something you did.

To the second way of looking at it your good intentions were not good enough. You are responsible for your lack of forethought. You jumped impulsively to help without carefully considering the ramifications of your helping and you ended up causing more harm than good.

A third way to look at incorporates both approaches.The earthly court cannot possibly know his intentions. Did he really want to help Simon or was he trying to get Levi off the hook? Only he and God know. So the earthly court exempts him from payment.

But God knows his intentions and that’s why he is responsible in the eyes of heaven to pay. Only God sees the whole picture – his actions and the thoughts that went into his actions.

The lines demarcating the earthly and the heavenly court are at once clearly drawn as distinct yet clearly connected.

The two courts are connected because the earthly court reminds the defendant of the heavenly court. Each court has jurisdiction as far as it’s eyes can see. The earthly court can only see the person’s actions. The heavenly court can see even beyond what we can know about ourselves. The common denominator for both is culpability.

This halachic discourse coincided with and echoed for me the Alei Shur’s explanation of the third aspect of belief in God:

Believe that God understands and knows your subconscious thoughts – in our case, your good intentions…and together with this believe that God expects more from you. – in our case, to consider whether you may be causing someone a loss.

In other words intentions are themselves part of man’s fallibility because we don’t always know enough or don’t always think through carefully enough to see where our intentions will lead…


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