Rabbi David Wolpe posted a question online this week: Does it ever seem that those with guilty consciences are good people and evildoers feel innocent?
I’m not sure how to answer the question, because as I understand it, it is a question of kavannah, of intent, of the internal person. Or worse, the exterior image of the internal person. That is; if I do something wrong and feel bad about it, then that makes me better than someone who does something wrong and justifies the action.
The problem, of course, is that the action remains the same, whether we feel guilty as a result or justified, ‘innocent’. The wrong has been committed, the toothpaste is out of the tube, and it’s never going back.
I lift up this question—deep, challenging, problematic—because it seems to me that so much of what’s going on in the world—going WRONG in the world—is not being addressed because we’re spending so much time dealing with intentions. What are Russia’s intentions in Syria? What are Iran’s intentions? What is the intention of the 17 year old Palestinian walking down the street, or the 40 year old Israeli settler? We assume we know. More than that, we assume the intention, not the action, is the most important thing. Want to bring this closer to home? Tony Allen and Dan Rich, in a presentation yesterday about Wilmington Schools and its educational needs, pointed out very clearly that too much energy around Educational reform has been bound up in fighting over who got it wrong and assigning blame rather than moving forward to do what is right.
The question of intent focuses us on the past: what we ought to have done, or said, in the moment that is gone; or the future: perhaps my guilty conscience will obviate me of further blame. But the past doesn’t exist. It’s ceased to be. Likewise the future doesn’t exist either: we don’t know what will happen twenty minutes from now, never mind twenty years. The only thing we truly have is this moment, this time. Intent becomes a dead end—unless it changes behavior in the here and now.
The first words of Torah, bereshit bara Elohim, are strange words, not grammatically correct. God Creates ‘bereshit’, with ‘beginnings’. What does that mean? For the Lekhivitzer Rebbe it meant in fact that “God created for the sake of beginning.” That is, every moment, and every action of every moment, is a beginning. We could use that time to dwell on what was, or fret about what will be. We could begin with love or with anger, or even worse, indifference. We could begin from poverty or justice. Our actions will decide the nature of those beginnings, and from them might emerge whole worlds, and if we are very careful, those words may be “tov”, good. May they be full of wisdom. May they be right.