The Thought Doesn’t Always Count

July 14, 2023 / 25 Tammuz 5783

We have all heard, or even personally uttered, the phrase, “It’s the thought that counts.” Well, in this week’s double Torah portion, Matot-Masei, we learn that according to Jewish tradition, this isn’t exactly the case.

Having good intentions is an important characteristic on which to build life-long behaviors and instincts for doing good, which should unquestionably be recognized and nurtured. However, if thoughts were what Gd evaluated and rewarded, then the opposite of well-intentioned thoughts would be considered equally punishable. And we know that this is not the case because Talmud Kiddushin 40a teaches us that “Gd does not take evil intentions into account if they were not carried to fruition.”

At the beginning of parshah, Matot, Moses speaks on behalf of Gd sharing a story highlighting the responsibility of making a promise (Numbers 30:3-6). We read of a child intending to take on the responsibility of becoming a Nazarite, yet unbeknownst to the child, the father annuls the promise and its honorable intent. It is here where the rabbinic commentary gets interesting. According to Rashi, if the child believes they have made the pledge and breaks it, then they are still held accountable for their sin, no matter the pledge’s validity.

Now, if Gd does, in fact, take intent into account, as Rashi suggests, then this would seemingly contradict the Talmudic discussion previously mentioned. However, what we discover upon closer reading is that there are two types of intent, which is the nuance of “the thought that counts.”

If a person has a fleeting intent, whether positive or negative, but takes no action on it, then it is as though the thought never existed and carries no judgment. However, if a person has the inclination to do good or bad and then moves towards that thought’s fulfillment, in other words, takes action towards its implementation, then it is the action that gets judged, even if the end result is never fully achieved.

Building community through developing and strengthening relationships works in very much the same way. In my role, I often hear criticisms, with the occasionally sprinkled compliments, on what is not working in our local Jewish community. Essentially, the criticisms come in two forms, the first are from people who moved here from larger and more resourced Jewish communities who want us to offer the things they had available to them in their former communities. The second group are those who have been in San Antonio for years, even generations, who reflect on a time when the community was more united, collaborative, and philanthropic.

I cannot deny the frustration, disappointment, nor sadness that is shared by these community members. However, what I also hear in their critical words is a hope and a longing for a time of togetherness, mutual benefit, and positive growth. In my conversations with these critics, I find myself encouraging them to step up, participate, reach out, and help advance our community to get to where we collectively want it to be. Many respond to the charge. They get energized, want to become part of the solution and find a way to take positive actions. However, some decide that their role is to simply point out the flaws or to take no action and chose to do nothing.

It is the thought, in both cases, of desiring a vibrant Jewish community that could be recognized for the good. As we learn from this week’s Torah portion, however, it is the actions taken after the thought that define its potentially positive outcome.

In a few months (following the High Holy Days), the Jewish Federation will be reaching out across the Jewish community to hear the wide range of thoughts and wishes for our Jewish community’s future. What are our dreams and aspirations for Jewish San Antonio? Where do we want to be three, five, ten years from now? We have named this initiative Hineni, translated as “Here I am!” This listening tour encourages our community to come and be heard.

In the meantime, we encourage you to reflect on where we are and where we want to be. Because when the time comes, everyone will be asked to help achieve our collective aspirations, we will all need to be part of the journey, and we will all rejoice in its eventual success. Because we are…



Shabbat shalom,