When it comes to Mitzvot, intentions are important, but the action is primary. If you want to mow the lawn, you need to go out and mow it. Intending to mow the lawn and even visualizing yourself doing it, won’t cut it (pun intended).
Similarly, if you want to do a Mitzvah, you need to get up and do it. Visualizing yourself doing the Mitzvah, won’t get the Mitzvah done.
It is true that a Mitzvah without proper intention is like a body without a soul, but of the two, the action is primary. The most important part is to get it done. Good intentions aren’t Mitzvot. Mitzvot are actionable items.
Nowhere is this truer than with Tzedakah. In Jewish law, if you lose a dollar and a poor person finds it, you get a Mitzvah. You didn’t intend to do a Mitzvah, but the primary objective of Tzedakah is that the poor person is fed. If your money feeds the poor, you get a Mitzvah.
Not only can you get a Mitzvah without any intention, you can also get one with negative intentions. Giving Tzedakah with a loving smile and a kind word is much better than giving with a frown. But if you give with a frown, you still get a Mitzvah. Think of it from the poor person’s perspective. If you give and grouse, the poor receive money. If you smile and withhold, they don’t. Money can save lives. Intentions can’t.
A generous patron of charitable causes once complained to Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi that he is not satisfied with his charity because he feels that he is not giving with authenticity. The Rebbe replied, but the recipients receive your gifts with authenticity.
The one exception is Torah study. The Mitzvah of Torah study is only fulfilled if we do it with pure intention—to know the Halachah, for the sake of the Mitzvah, or, best, to connect with G-d. If we study for the sake of self-aggrandizement or to satiate our curiosity, it is not a Mitzvah.
The Talmud tells us to study Torah even if our intentions are not perfect. That is because if we study for the wrong reasons, we will eventually come to study for the right reasons. But if we stop studying because we lack the right intentions, we will never end up studying for the right reasons.
It remains, however, that the Mitzvah of Torah study must be performed for the right reasons and with the right intentions. If we study the Torah without proper intention, we do not have a Mitzvah. In this sense, Torah study is unique.
This helps us understand a fascinating detail about the construction of the Holy Ark that was placed in the Tabernacle. On the four corners of the ark, there were golden rings through which rods were inserted. When the ark was transported across the desert, it was lifted by these rods.
The Torah tells us that the ark should be constructed of pure gold. The rods, however, did not need to be made of pure gold. Any gold would do.
The ark represents the Torah because the two tablets were housed in the ark. The rods represent Tzedakah, or more specifically, those who support the Torah scholars. Just as the ark was lifted by the rods, so are scholars of Torah supported by those who give them Tzedakah.
The difference between the ark, which required pure gold, and the rods, for which ordinary gold sufficed, is explained by the distinction between Torah study and other Mitzvot.
We explained earlier that the Torah must be studied with pure intentions, otherwise it is not a Mitzvah. Accordingly, the ark had to be constructed of pure gold. Regular gold would not suffice for the ark, only pure gold because only pure intentions are appropriate for Torah study. The rods, however, could be constructed of ordinary gold because Tzedakah is a mitzvah even if the intentions are less than pure.
Why is there a difference between Torah study and other Mitzvot?
The answer can be explained by way of analogy. Suppose you are contracted to sow a bridal gown for a wedding. You sowed the gown but were distracted by personal thoughts the entire time, never once sparing a thought for the bride who will be radiant in this gown at her wedding. This doesn’t present you in the best light, it makes you seem self-absorbed, but you didn’t waste your time. You will still get paid because you produced a beautiful gown.
Now suppose you and your spouse booked a romantic get-away to enjoy some time alone and you spent the entire time buried in your smartphone not sparing a glance or a thought for your spouse. Now, this is a little different. This doesn’t just put you in a negative light. If you were self-absorbed when the purpose of the exercise was to make a connection, you have failed. You wasted your time.
Doing a Mitzvah is like providing a service for G-d. The poor person is G-d’s responsibility and rather than providing for the poor by Himself, He gave you the money to act on His behalf. It would be wonderful if you would give the money as G-d would, with sensitivity and empathy. But if you didn’t, you still get a Mitzvah because you got the job done.
The Correct Way
The correct way to study Torah is to contemplate for a moment before we begin that we are about to delve into G-d’s mind and heart and learn His secrets. Reflect on the fact that as we absorb G-d’s ideas, we are absorbing G-d himself. It is a moment of intimacy between us and the Creator. It is like summoning G-d’s heart and mind into our hearts and minds.
If we take a few moments before Torah study to contemplate this, our entire approach will be G-d oriented. If we study for a long while, we should stop every hour or so and remind ourselves briefly that we are not just studying a text but delving into G-d’s mind.
When we study this way, our study is pure gold. Tzedakah and other Mitzvot can be fulfilled even if with impure intentions. It is not the best, but it is still a Mitzvah. Torah study requires pure gold. Pure intentions, a pure mind, and a pure heart.
Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.