Thus far we have clarified at length what it means to be pious. We shall now turn our attention to another very important principle related to piety.
Pious behavior can be misleading. Though a certain act may appear virtuous at first glance, a paradigm of pious behavior, its ramifications may in fact be very undesirable.
For example, Gedaliah ben Achikam was invested with the responsibility of ruling over what remained of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel at the end of the Second Temple period. When people came and told him that Yishmael ben Netanya was scheming to assassinate him, Gedaliah refused to believe them because of his enormous piety. He would not listen to slander.
When Yochanan ben Kareach came and said to him, "Grant me permission to kill Yishmael who schemes to assassinate you," Gedaliah responded, "Do not do this thing. What you say of Yishmael is not true" (Jeremiah 40:16). And what was the price of this piety? He himself was murdered, the Jewish people were scattered, and the final ember was extinguished. Indeed, Scripture holds Gedaliah ben Achikam responsible for the deaths of those who were killed as a result of his behavior. From here we learn that a person must weigh his actions carefully - not to be overly pious, yet not to refrain from piety altogether.
The Maharal, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, says that a person can only succeed in attaining the correct measure of piety if he possesses the following three traits:
a. that his heart be as pure as possible, that his one desire be to bring pleasure to God.
b. that he examine his deeds carefully and try to perfect them accordingly.
c. that he place his trust in God, for by doing this he merits divine assistance, as it is written, "Happy is the man whose strength is in You . . . Goodness will not be lacking for those who walk in purity." (Psalms 84:6, 12).
If one of these three conditions is missing a person will not attain perfection, and he is likely to stumble and fall. If a person's intentions are not pure, or if a person is derelict about examining his deeds and their ramifications, or if he fails to place his trust in his Creator, he will find it difficult to avoid falling.
But if a person harbors pure intentions, carefully examines his behavior, and trusts in God, he will be able to follow the true path and no evil will befall him. This idea was expressed by the prophetess Hannah when she said "He protects the feet of his pious." King David likewise said, "And He will not forsake his pious ones; they will forever be protected" (Psalms 37:28).
Hence, one must weigh the ramifications of every act. It was to this that R' Yochanan was referring when he said, "The humility of R' Zechariah destroyed our Temple, consumed our Sanctuary, and exiled us among the nations." This is what happened: Bar Kamtza went to the Roman authorities and spoke slanderously against the Jews claiming that they did not accept Roman rule. This could be proven, said Bar Kamtza, by sending an animal sacrifice as an offering to the Holy Temple. The Jews, he said, would refuse to offer it up.
So they sent an offering with bar Kamtza and he blemished the animal so that it be rendered unacceptable as a sacrifice according to Jewish law, yet acceptable in the eyes of the Romans. "The Rabbis thought to sacrifice the animal. R' Zechariah ben Avkulos said to them, 'People will say that animals with imperfections may be sacrificed upon the altar.' The Rabbis thought to kill him [Bar Kamtza]. R' Zachariah ben Avkulos said to them, 'They will say that one who causes an imperfection in sacrificial animals should be killed.' While all this was going on, the evildoer slandered the Jews to the emperor, who came and destroyed Jerusalem."
In sum, improper piety, piety which fails to take repercussions into account, is neither virtue nor piety. True piety calls for a scrupulous examination of one's deeds and their ramifications in addition to pure intentions.
Some of the above article was taken from Feldheim's translation of The Path of the Just.