I found myself a few weeks ago on an Orthodox Jewish website doing some research. During my browsing I discovered their “Ask the Rabbi” section and an article caught my eye. The question concerned whether motives mattered when giving tzedakah, charity. The person writing was concerned because they had been giving charity regularly, but lately were giving in the hopes of something they yearned and dreamed for – their daughter getting married. They asked whether giving out of this motive was still charity or whether they were trying to bribe God. The issue on the surface seems to be one of intent. Do our intentions matter when we give to charity, or other forms of Mitzvot, good deeds?
This issue of intent, in my opinion, can be resolved with this week’s parasha, Kee Tavo, meaning “when you enter”. Kee Tavo covers Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8 and covers the tithe of First-fruits. This parasha also contains the promised blessings for obedience or curses resulting from disobeying and turning away from the Lord.
Chapter 26 begins with an explanation of the tithe that is to be given of the First-fruits the land produces. The people were to give a tenth of the produce of their land from the first and best of the crop. This tithe was to be brought to the Temple, presented at the altar of God and was to be given with a joyful heart. A formal declaration was to be recited before the priest, recounting the mighty power and love of Adonai, who had brought us into the Land He promised Abraham. We were also commanded to rejoice in all the Lord had given us in this great land.
Part of the recited speech is found in verses 8-10:
And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O Lord, have given me.
In the third year of the seven-year agricultural cycle, the Jewish people were commanded to give a tithe specifically to support the Levites, as well as the poor of society: the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow. When this portion was presented to the Levites, the worshiper had another declaration they were to recite, affirming that the portion was being given in a holy way and in accordance with the commands of Adonai. We were to declare that it was not eaten while in mourning, that it was clean, and that this offering was for the needy in society. Moses wraps up chapter 26 with another warning that we were to perform these commandments with careful intent – with the totality of our being. Moses reminds those about to take the Promised Land that they have declared the Lord to be their God and are expected to follow His ways. The Lord in turn has promised to bless them, keep them, and make them a holy people if they abide by the terms of the Covenant.
The rest of this parasha is almost exclusively devoted to the curses that were to be recited on Mount Ebal and the blessings on Mount Gerizim, once our people entered the land. The curses in these chapters greatly outnumber the blessings and are incredibly specific. They become increasingly severe and begin with the reversal of the blessings to the Promised Land and people. Where once the Lord had blessed us with increase in children and food there would be a barren land and a barren womb. The curses continue to escalate leading to invasions by foreign countries, exile from the Promised Land, famine, cannibalism, and plagues such as those the Lord struck Egypt with when He freed us. These things are laid out in specific detail to warn our people what would happen if we broke our covenant with God and we see that these curses were literally fulfilled through Jewish History and the breaking of the Mosaic Covenant.
These curses are both dire and incredibly saddening, but the Lord wanted His people to understand the connection between action and consequence. Adonai is the source of all goodness and shalom (shalom meaning “wholeness” and “completeness”). To forsake the Lord is to consciously choose your way instead of His way. It is a choice to abandon the source of wholeness, peace, and well-being. Throughout the Jewish Scriptures we see a pattern of Israel abandoning the Lord and then returning. The Lord raised up prophets to call His people to repentance. The Hebrew word for this is teshuva and literally means “turning”, the idea is that we turn from wickedness and turn back towards the Creator. We share that same struggle – choosing the Lord’s way and not our own, humbling ourselves and becoming wise as we seek to walk with Adonai.
So do our motives matter? The rabbi’s response to this question was “No”. Citing the Talmud, he argued that the outcome, not the intent, is what matters. He wrote, “Don’t get too preoccupied with intentions. When it comes to helping others, actions count more. If you’re doing something good, even for selfish reasons, it is still good. If selfish motives are what it takes to keep you giving charity, so be it.”
This article had been in the back of my mind for some time, and I wondered why. As I studied this week’s parasha, I realized why this article bothered me so badly. “If selfish motives are what it takes to keep you giving charity, so be it.” Is this the standard of behavior we are to strive for? Is this what it means to do the Lord’s will in giving charity with a generous heart? Is this the standard of righteousness we should be satisfied with? I realized that this article reveals an attitude of justification by our works, assuming what we do is “good enough”, and of pride. Our intentions absolutely matter, and this parasha as well as Scripture speaks to this essential truth! In this parasha we see the serious intent that went into the Mosaic Covenant and to following Adonai’s commands. Yeshua Himself confronted the hypocrisy of outward showings of religion, when in secret our hearts are far away from Him.
The idea of giving charity in order to get something you want from God is an issue of pride. How dare we think we know better than God what the circumstances ought to be, or attempt to bribe Him! It is both foolish and arrogant to think that any action of yours can somehow earn you a level of favor by which to manipulate the Creator of the universe. We are talking about Adonai Tzva’ot, the Lord of Hosts, the Lord of Armies! It is He who orders the heavens and sustains them in power. Scripture uses words like All-Powerful, All-Knowing, Eternal, Good, and Just to describe the Lord; but we cannot even begin to comprehend His infinite Majesty. Isaiah conveyed that as the heavens are higher than the Earth so God’s ways and thoughts are higher than our ways and thoughts. This is who you plan to barter with and question? I’m reminded of the dozens of questions the Lord asked of Job inside the whirlwind, not one of which that righteous man could answer.
So if we cannot bribe God, nor earn His favor, how do we bring our petitions before Him? The answer is found in drawing close to Him through prayer. But we are not free to approach the Holy One of Israel on our own terms. Not everyone has access to the throne room of God; our sin makes it necessary that a mediator stand between us and the infinitely Holy One. And there is only one Mediator between God and Man, Messiah Yeshua.
The Lord does not change, He still desires to make all of us, Jew and Gentile, a holy people and have us repent and turn back to Him. “Return to me and I will return to you,” says the Lord in Malachi. We are invited to return to Him, and experience true shalom and blessing – on His terms – through the sacrifice of Messiah Yeshua and the grace it provides.
Therefore as we come to the end of the Torah and enter into the upcoming High Holidays let us learn from this parasha. Let us learn that the curses and blessings of Adonai are clear, that His commands are clear, and that we must have pure motives when we turn to Him. Let us set aside rationalization and justification and make David’s prayer in Psalm 139 our own:
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!