Several years ago I was 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. The person writing was concerned because they had been giving 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 right 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 tzedakah, charity, or other Mitzvot, good deeds?
Our parasha this week parasha, Ki Tavo, “when you enter” can answer this question for us. Ki Tavo covers Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8 and contains 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 the tithe that is to be given of the First-fruits the land produces. This tithe was a tenth of the produce of the land from the first and best of the crop. The crops were to be brought to the Temple with a joyful heart. At the Altar 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.
In the third year of the seven-year agricultural cycle, we were commanded to give a tithe to support the Levites, as well as the most vulnerable in society: the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow. When this portion was presented to the Levites, the worshiper had another declaration they were to recite. They affirmed 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 concludes 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.
Chapter 27 continues with Moses instructing us to seriously obey the teachings of Adonai. The Lord instructed the Levites that when our people were assembled together to declare and affirm that we would not commit idolatry, indulge in sexual immorality, and not to pervert justice for those who are vulnerable.
Chapter 28 is devoted to the blessings that were to be recited on Mount Gerizim and to the curses on Mount Ebal once our people entered the Land. The blessings of the Lord included physical wealth and prosperity for the Land of Israel and a promise of numerous offspring. We were also promised that the Lord would raise us up over the other nations so that we would be greatly respected and feared throughout the world. The blessings in this parasha are very wonderful, but the curses in these chapters greatly outnumber the blessings and are incredibly specific.
The curses for disobeying the Lord 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. Our parasha ends in Deuteronomy 29 with Moses reminding us once again to carefully follow the commands of Adonai so that we may prosper and not be punished.
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.”
Unfortunately, this answer reveals an attitude of justifying ourselves, 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 lesson at the heart of Ki Tavo is that our intentions and our motives do matter. We are not free to approach the Holy One of Israel on our own terms nor follow His commands any way we want. We are also responsible for helping those who are deeply in need, not ignoring the plights of those around us. We are commanded to live according to Adonai’s standard and not our own, which requires a mediator like the Priests of old. Today the only Mediator between God and Man is Messiah Yeshua.
Therefore, as the High Holidays approach 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. 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. May each one of us return to Adonai, and experience true shalom and blessing – on His terms – through the sacrifice of Messiah Yeshua and the grace it provides.