The opening section of Parashat Matot presents the basic laws of Nedarim, voluntary vows that a person takes upon himself. The Torah grants a husband "veto power" over his wife's Nedarim, such that if a husband hears of his wife's vow and declares it void, she is no longer bound by it. The verse states concerning this case, "her husband has annulled them [her vows] – and God shall forgive her" (30:13).
The obvious question arises, for what does she require forgiveness? What has she done wrong for which the Almighty must forgive her?
The Talmud (Nazir 23a) cites Rabbi Akiva as explaining that this verse speaks of a situation where the woman intentionally transgressed her vow, but was unaware of the fact that her husband had already annulled it. She thought she was committing a violation, while in truth she committed a permissible act. Even though it turned out that she had done nothing wrong, she nevertheless requires atonement for having intended to commit a transgression.
Generally speaking, as the Sages teach, a person who plans to commit a sin but does not succeed is not held accountable for his intentions. For example, if somebody makes plans to rob a bank but the opportunity never presents itself, he is not punished for having made the plans. However, this applies only if no action is committed. Where, however, a person plans to commit a sin and performs the action, he is held accountable even if the act turned out to be permissible.
This principle has numerous applications. Consider, for example, the case of a person flying on the airplane and orders the standard, non-kosher meal. Unwittingly, the stewardess serves him the Glatt kosher meal, and he eats the food thinking that he eats non-kosher. Even though it turned out that he ate kosher food, he is nevertheless deserving of punishment because he committed an act that he thought constituted a Torah violation.
Similarly, the Hafetz Haim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, Lithuania, 1839-1933) applied this rule to situations where it is permissible to speak Lashon Ha'ra (negative speech about others), such as when somebody is asked about a boy or girl recommended for a Shidduch (match). The one who inquires about the prospective match must clarify that he asks for this purpose, and that conveying negative information is therefore permissible. If the person conveys negative information about the boy or girl without knowing that in this instance Lashon Ha'ra is permissible, then he will be liable to punishment. Since he thinks he commits a transgression – speaking Lashon Ha'ra for no constructive purpose – he is held accountable, even if in truth Halacha permits Lashon Ha'ra in such a case.
Another application of this principle involves a fascinating Halachic ruling by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Jerusalem, 1910-1995). Rabbi Auerbach ruled that if a person who does not observe Kashrut sits down to eat food that he does not realize is kosher, others should inform him of the food's kosher status. If he thinks he eats non-kosher, he is liable to punishment even though the food is kosher, since he thinks he transgresses a prohibition.
The Talmud tells that when Rabbi Akiva would read this verse in Parashat Matot, he would break down crying. He would exclaim, "If somebody who planned to take pig meat and in the end took sheep's meat requires atonement and forgiveness, somebody who planned to take pig meat and took pig meat – all the more so!" If a person is held accountable for planning to commit a sin even if in the end the act was permissible, we can only imagine the punishment that awaits those who "succeed" in their plans to violate the Torah.
The emotion that overcame Rabbi Akiva when he read this verse reflects the extent to which he had internalized the concept of accountability. We all intellectually believe in the doctrine of reward and punishment; we are all well aware of the fact that we are held accountable for our wrongdoing. Few of us, however, have succeeded in internalizing this message, in bringing it from the mind to the heart. A person can study and research the harmful effects of smoking and still continue to smoke if the information is not internalized. Similarly, intellectual knowledge of the notion of accountability does not necessary guarantee that one will refrain from sin. We must draw inspiration from Rabbi Akiva and try to internalize this message, until the dangers of sin become readily clear, evident and instinctive, and we will thus succeed in avoiding sin and remaining faithful to God and His Torah.