Sunday, March 27, 2011

The limits of good intentions


"Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz (Sichot Mussar 5732 #2) observes that the Talmud (Bava Batra 16a) is offering no mitigation of Peninah's guilt. Rather, it is expressing that when dealing with the genuine pain of other individuals, good intentions are no defense; the end result is just as anguishing. As he puts it, if one places a person's arm in an oven, even if one means well, it is no less burnt."

(Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman, The Right and the Good, pg. xxi)

Have a great day,


  1. Good message, but not always practical. When treating serious burns, additional pain needs to be inflicted (incisions, debridement) in order to enhance possibilities of optimal healing. Or am I asking an inappropriate analogy? There are other situations I can think of in medicine and dentistry.
    This daily thought also reminds me of (1) an aphorism and (2) an occasional comment heard in raising children:
    (1) The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
    (2) This hurts me more than it hurts you.

  2. Anonymous 8:15 AM-
    I suppose the question is whether the damage is as necessary in the case of helping others socially, as it is in the case of burn treatment. No?

    Re: #2 - Yes, and I prefer "differently than it hurts you." I think kids can get that.

  3. Thanks for the suggestion of changing the language in discipline of children. I’m still confused about the Mussar lesson. I reviewed that piece in Bava Batra as well as the source in Shmuel, and I think Peninah was just plain nasty. In similar situations in Torah, I don’t recall Leah taunting Rachel, but do recall Hagar being mean to Sarah. I suppose R’ Shmuelevitz is teaching us that there’s no excuse for being nasty to someone else, even if it eventually creates positive results. And he thus appropriately invalidates two more aphorisms, both of which I feel are not in keeping with Jewish tradition:
    (1) All’s well that ends well.
    (2) The ends justify the means.

    Keep up the good work. I always look forward to the Daily Torah Thought.

  4. Thank you. I'm not sure I'd read Peninah as nasty, based on the drash layer here, but certainly R' Shmuelevitz is warning us away from her mistake.