Actions are louder than thoughts
This week’s double parasha begins, “Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community…” After repeating the commandment to observe Shabbat, Moses asked the people to donate the materials needed to build the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary. And Rashi, the great 11th-century French commentator, tells us, “l’maharat Yom haKippurim” — that is, Moses gathered the people together on the day after Yom Kippur.
According to the traditional rabbinic chronology, God gave Moses the second set of tablets of the Ten Commandments, signifying that He had forgiven the Israelites for the sin of the Golden Calf, on the 10th day of Tishrei, Yom Kippur. So Rashi adds that Moses began the collection of materials for the Mishkan on the very next day. In other words, Moses acted immediately to translate the people’s repentance and God’s forgiveness into action. And the Israelites responded quickly and enthusiastically. They brought so much that Moses had to tell them to stop. In fact, the midrash Tanhuma says that everything needed was collected in only two days.
Rabbi Yehuda Leib Eiger of Lublin (1817-1888) wrote:
When Rashi wrote l’maharat Yom haKippurim, he meant to teach: It is not sufficient that on Yom Kippur in the synagogue, out of fear and awe of the Day of Judgment, that we act correctly — that our hearts quake and are filled with yirat Hashem (fear/awe of God) and ahavat habriyot (love of God’s creatures). What is important is how we behave l’maharat Yom haKippurim — every day of the year, in daily life, in the street, and in business.
L’maharat Yom haKippurim — all our good intentions to be better people, to be kinder, to be more considerate, to donate time and money to worthy causes, to turn our lives around — are worth nothing if they are not translated into action.
Back in 1976, when Jimmy Carter was running for president, I was dumbfounded when he confessed in an interview that he had committed adultery by “lusting in his heart.” (It was only years later that I learned this idea came from the Gospels.) How could it be a sin to see an attractive woman and imagine for a moment what it might be like to sleep with her? That’s not adultery, it’s a momentary fantasy.
The Talmud in Bava Batra says that no one makes it through a single day without inappropriate sexual thoughts. It’s normal to have fantasies about doing something you shouldn’t — what counts is that you don’t act on them. A bad or inappropriate thought is just that — it’s not a sin unless you translate it into action.
That’s the good news. Of course, the bad news is the corollary — good intentions only count when they are translated into action. There are no points for “I meant to, really I did.”
As Moses understood and as Rashi taught, it is on Yom Kippur that we form our intentions, that we resolve to be better and to try harder. But it is l’maharat Yom haKippurim, on the day after Yom Kippur, that we show what is truly in