Mitzvot must be fulfilled through honest, ethical action

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO — Does the end ever justify the means?

Not according to the Torah.

One may not fulfill a religious obligation (a mitzvah) through unethical or immoral action. Our sages called this a mitzvah ha-ba’ah ba-aveirah, a mitzvah that is performed through a sinful act.

One of the places our sages learned this is found in this week’s Torah portion. In parashat Va-yak-hel Moses reminds the people: “This is what the Lord has commanded. Take from among you [the Israelites] gifts to the Lord…” (Ex. 35:4-5)

Rabbi Menachem Beker notes that to fund the building of the Mishkan, the traveling tent of worship, the Israelites were commanded to donate their own gifts, and not gifts which they had taken from others through theft or deceit. The Israelites were not permitted to build God’s House with goods or materials that they had not earned honestly and through the sweat of their brow.

Similarly, Rabbi Beker continues, when the prophet Isaiah chastises the Israelites on Yom Kippur and informs them that their fasting must be accompanied by righteous deeds, he says: “No this is the fast I desire…It is to share your bread with the hungry….” (Isaiah 58:6-7).

Isaiah does not tell the people that they should give bread to the hungry, but rather their bread to the hungry. One must give to the poor from one’s own bounty and not from ill-gotten gains.

One of the perennial (eternal?) discussions held by our Board of Directors is what to do about people who “sneak” into High Holy Day services. That is, Jews who are not members of the congregation and are unwilling to make a donation toward the synagogue’s upkeep, who somehow figure out a way to find a seat at our Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services. They are not referring to people who are financially challenged, because a way is always found to welcome them. Rather, they are concerned about Jews who have the means to support the congregation and do not choose to do so.

In the end, there is really nothing to be done about the “problem” because no one is willing to “throw” a Jew out of services (thank God!). However, there is another approach they should consider. They should hand out cards to the “offenders” which explain to them the concept of mitzvah ha-ba’ah ba-aveirah, a mitzvah that is performed through a sinful act.

A person who “sneaks” into High Holy Day services because they are unwilling to support the congregation is wasting their time. One cannot expect to be forgiven for their sins by God, when at the same time they are denying their responsibility to sustain God’s house.

Mitzvot can only be performed when one uses one’s own resources to fulfill them and not those of someone else.


Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego.  He may be contacted at [email protected]


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