Intentions Alone Won’t Do

“…And when Bnei Yisrael were in the desert, they found a man gathering wood on the Shabbos day…” – Bamidbar 15:32

וַיִּהְיוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּמִּדְבָּר וַיִּמְצְאוּ אִישׁ מְקֹשֵׁשׁ עֵצִים בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת – במדבר טו, לב

The Torah relates that a man gathered wood in violation of the Shabbos, and G-d instructed that he be put to death. According to the Midrash (cited in Tosfos, Bava Basra 119b), the wood gatherer had noble motives. For after the incident of the Spies, some of Bnei Yisrael believed that they were no longer obligated to keep the mitzvos, since it had been decreed that they would not enter the Land. The wood gatherer therefore violated the Shabbos, in order to demonstrate—through his liability—that the commandments were still in full effect.

According to this explanation, the wood gatherer did not truly desecrate the Shabbos. For only deliberate and purposeful work constitutes melacha—labor that is Biblically prohibited on Shabbos. Hence R’ Shimon ruled that one is not liable for “labor that is not needed for itself”; for example, if he carried objects from his home to the public domain, but his objective was the not the transfer to the public domain but the removal of unwanted objects from his home (Mishna, Shabbos 93a). Similarly, the wood gatherer’s objective was not the task he was performing but the demonstration that the Shabbos laws were still in effect. Accordingly, he should not have been liable! Nevertheless, G-d instructed that he be punished. For his motives did not have any discernible impact on the manner in which he did the prohibited labor, and therefore cannot be taken into Halachic consideration.


The wood gatherer’s liability thus refuted the notion that mitzvos were not obligatory after the incident of the spies. As explained in Likutei Torah (Shelach 38b), the spies desired to remain in the desert where Bnei Yisrael’s chief occupation was the study of the Torah, instead of entering the Land of Israel where their primary task would be actual observance of the mitzvos. Therefore, when G-d decreed that Bnei Yisrael would remain in the desert for forty years, the people reasoned that their generation was indeed not ready for a service of G-d that emphasized action. For them, a service of G-d involving the mind alone was sufficient.

The wood gatherer therefore demonstrated, that even in the laws of Shabbos, where thought plays such a significant role, intentions that have no bearing on one’s actions are irrelevant. Likewise, even in the desert, a Jew’s union with G-d is primarily achieved through observance of the mitzvos in practice.

—Likutei Sichos, vol. 28, pp. 94-97


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