I’ve never trusted intentions. I kind of agree with that saying about the road to hell being paved with them. Seriously, the number of students I have who totally intended to get all their homework done and to really study before that test can only be matched by the number of times I earnestly intended to accomplish something important, and then didn’t.
And that’s just people who don’t fulfil their intentions. It’s even worse when well-intentioned people do the cruelest things just because they think their intentions let them get away with it. Ugly things get said and done with the phrase “it’s for your own good” thrown in. Without being aware of the consequences of the actions one takes, one runs the risk of seriously hurting someone in the name of helping out. Psychological studies have been done that show most people are well-intentioned and have perfectly good explanations for the things they do – even when those things are truly horrible. It seems that people don’t go around saying, “how can I be a real evil, no-good, scumbag and hurt others?” Many people have lovely, positive intentions for all that they do.
In Judaism, there is more of an emphasis on proper action. One way I would explain the difference between Judaism and Christianity to those who asked me (when I was young and thought I knew stuff and didn’t have as much of an understanding of the consequences of actions or good intentions) was that in Christianity, one is asked to love aunt Sadie. In Judaism, one is asked to act in certain appropriate (and there are books that spell it out) ways with aunt Sadie, whether one loves her or not. This is, I have since realized, about as accurate as explaining the difference between Canada and the US by saying that Canadians say “eh” and Americans say “youse”. However, it does touch on the Kavanna (intention) versus Keva (action) debate, that the Rabbis have had such fun with.
We all agree that best would be to have both. If you act in good ways and you have good intention, bingo, you win! The question is, in an imperfect world, what does one focus on? Both have issues – Keva without Kavanna is like body without soul, says one Rabbi. And as for Kavanna without Keva – well, the road to hell continues to be paved with that! Society veers one way, then the other. Sometimes, everyone focuses on form and laws are written and expanded upon and clarified and codified. Over time, the laws take over, and bureaucracy rules, and find themselves stifled and limited. There are those who take advantage, and find loopholes and do horrible things which are technically within the letter of the law. So people break away, throw out all the laws, put flowers in their hair and dance freely through the streets, which works really well until one realizes that no one is washing the dishes and no one is being safe and just as many horrible things are being done in the name of love as were being done in the name of law. So, someone draws up a chore chart to let the dishes get done and puts in a few rules and slowly those rules build up into law and society veers the other way again.
There is no way to succeed without both. I want to scream that sometimes at the politicians currently trying to convince us that they are either well-intentioned and will help us live in a lovelier place or that they are serious about good law and government and will help keep us functional and safe. Both, people, I want both!
I’m big on order. I like my traditions, and I’m happy with the same thing happening day after day, so if I had to make a choice, I’d say I’m more on the rules and laws side of this fence. Nevertheless, I recognize the importance of acting whole-heartedly. So, I try to act more on the side of intention. I hope to one day achieve that balance of action and intention that actually means I’m doing it right.