Alternatively, we could ask whether or not it is allowed to do something that is good or holy while also doing something illegal or spiritually harmful. In the Talmud the rabbis ask this question around a stolen etrog, the lemon shaped fruit used on Sukkot. The rabbis ask whether or not a stolen etrog may be used in the rituals of the holiday. Even though this particular case doesn’t come up often (or ever) in our daily life, the principle is valid everyday.
In this week’s parasha, Hukkat, Moses and Aaron are charged with retrieving water from a rock in the desert. Both of these leaders are fed up with the bickering of the Israelites, and in a fit of anger, Moses disobeys God’s instructions for pulling water from a rock. God tells Moses to speak to the rock, and the rock would give forth water; instead, Moses strikes the rock, twice, and the water still comes out. Undoubtedly, giving water to thirsty people in the dessert is a mitzvah (both a good deed and a commandment), but Moses performs the mitzvah by transgressing God’s instruction. This classic tale is an excellent parallel story to the rabbinic question. Even our greatest, most important leader, Moses, can falter when trying to help the people. How much more likely is it that we could do the same?
We don’t have to look far to find instances of similar stories in our world today. The danger of these examples is twofold. First, it normalizes wrongdoing as long as the goal is met. Second, we lessen the spiritual righteousness of these actions when we mix them with anything less than our highest moral standards.
In the story of the etrog, three people are harmed and spiritually diminished: the etrog seller, the thief, and God. Even in religious zeal, our actions must been done with care for all who are involved. Our task is to be mindful of how our actions, no matter how justified, affect the lives of others.