You have surely seen this scene on TV: Detectives try to get a suspect to confess by telling him that if he has a good reason for what he did, they will help him get easier treatment in court. Then the suspect, not the brightest fellow, says something like, “I didn’t mean to kill him. I just brought the gun to scare him. I wasn’t gonna use it. I just wanted to rob him. But he wouldn’t hand over the money, so I had to shoot him.”
Sometimes, in American law, intent matters. A charge of first-degree murder generally requires proof of the intent to kill. But there’s also the felony murder rule — if someone dies during the commission of a crime, even if that someone has a heart attack during a robbery, the criminal is charged with murder.
Quite simply, outcomes are more important than intentions. And so we find this in our parsha: “If you unwittingly fail to observe any one of the commandments that the Lord has declared to Moses…from the day that the Lord gave the commandment and on through the ages…. In case it is an individual who has sinned unwittingly, he shall offer a she-goat in its first year as a purification offering.”
Someone who unwittingly commits a transgression is required to bring a sacrifice. Why? He didn’t mean to sin. In fact, he wasn’t even aware he was committing a sin. Ramban suggests that this law applies to someone who was raised without knowledge of the Torah. When this person learns that many things he had been accustomed to do are, in fact, forbidden, he could bring a sacrifice to relieve the guilt he feels over his behavior.
It’s a nice thought, but I don’t buy it. It may be cynicism or it may be that Ramban lived in a more innocent age — 13th-century Spain — but I understand this law to be a reminder that actions count far more than intentions.
There are cases where Jewish law, like American law, considers intent — particularly in distinguishing between murder and involuntary manslaughter. The Torah teaches that a murderer is punished by execution, but a manslayer is punished by exile to one of the cities designated for that purpose. But look at the case the Torah brings to illustrate manslaughter: two men go into the forest to cut wood. As one swings his ax at a tree, the ax head flies off the handle and hits the other man, killing him. The man who swung the ax is exiled, but he is not to be executed because he bore no ill-will to the man who died.
In American law, this would undoubtedly be considered a tragic accident and the wood chopper would not be prosecuted. However, the Torah says, even under these circumstances — no injury intended or foreseen, no enmity between the two men — a human life was taken. The inadvertent killer must pay for the outcome of his action even though his intentions were totally innocent.
Moreover, intentions are rarely pure or simple. We judge people according to their actions because no one can really know another’s true motives. In fact, most of us have trouble understanding our own motives. It may be absolutely true that a transgressor intended no harm or intended to do the right thing — or it may be true that he is saying this because he is embarrassed or surprised that what he did was discovered. We don’t know, but we do know that harm occurred or that some good thing was left undone.
Still, we are taught to give others’ behavior a favorable interpretation whenever possible. It could be your coworker didn’t repay the $20 you lent him because he’s trying to steal from you, but it’s also possible it slipped his mind because he is worried about family problems. And your life will certainly be more pleasant if you assume his failure to repay was an accident and gently remind him of the debt.
How to apply the lesson about the sacrifice required for an unintentional sin? When you find yourself saying, “I really didn’t mean any harm” or “I meant to do it, it just got away from me,” be honest enough — at least with yourself — to say, “I messed up” and do what you can to repair the damage. In this way, you contribute to tikun olam, the repair of the world — and you will sleep a lot better at night.