Friday, July 30, 2010

Actions Matter More Than Thoughts

In our day and age, there is an underlying philosophy that feeling good is more important than actually doing good. In a similar vein, there are those who believe that thoughts and actions are equally significant. This couldn't be further from the truth. I recently stumbled upon a touching documentary called The Way We Get By, which beautifully illustrates why actions are much more important. Here's the trailer:

The film is about the Maine troop greeters - a group of senior citizens who gather every day at a local airport to thank American soldiers departing and returning from war. Even though some of these people had personal problems or doubts about the wars in which these soldiers were fighting, they still did the right thing by being there when the troops came home. These individuals understood that doing good (i.e. actions) must override personal objections (i.e. thoughts). If only more people would follow their example.

A passage we recite all the time illustrates this point in a different way. We say in the daily Shema, "v'lo taturu acharei l'vavchem v'acharei einechem" - "and you shall not stray after your hearts and after your eyes." Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch provides a very insightful understanding of this phrase. The cantillation mark on the words v'lo taturu is an azla geiresh, which literally means "to go and drive away." This teaches us that when evil thoughts "arrive," don't allow them to resonate, but rather "drive them away." In other words, we're not responsible for all the random thoughts going through our minds, but we are responsible for any bad behavior that comes as a result of dwelling on those thoughts.

A different but related lesson is taught by the nineteenth-century Chasidic rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov. Given that Judaism is a monotheistic faith that frowns upon atheism, he was once asked why God would create human beings with the capacity to deny His existence. Rabbi Moshe Leib responded that people who have absolute faith might ignore a person in need of help and think, "God will surely take care of them, so I don't have to do anything." Therefore, it's important to have some people who instead think, "maybe there is no God, and only I can help them." Believing that God will help everyone with their problems is terrific, but not if we rely on such a thought to free ourselves from action.

As human beings in general, and as Jews in particular (after all, we're a very opinionated people), there are inevitably going to be times when bad thoughts about other people pass through our minds. As long as we quell those thoughts at the source and do not allow them to negatively influence our behavior, our interpersonal relationships can still thrive. When all is said and done, actions are what ultimately matter. Your private thoughts are between you and God, but your public actions are between you, God and everyone else.

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