Are good deeds valid even when we don’t intend to perform them?
In Parshat Toldot (Bereishit 27:22) Yitzchak declares,
“Hakol kol Yaakov vehayadaim yedei Eisav.” – “The voice is the voice of Jacob and the hands are the hands of Esau.”
Yitzchak was troubled because he was wondering who was standing in front of him, when his youngest son Yaakov was actually deceiving him.
But notice the way in which letters make a huge difference.
‘Hakol’ and ‘kol’ are the same word repeated one after the other, but with a different spelling. It’s a ‘maleh vechaseir’ (complete and incomplete) wherein sometimes a word includes a vav and sometimes it doesn’t. ‘Hakol’, the voice, is spelled kuf lamed (קל), without a vav and then the ‘kol’ coming afterwards is kuf vav lamed (קול), with a vav. What lesson emerges from this?
The Vilna Gaon teaches that if you read these terms literally it becomes ‘hakal kol’, which means ‘sound is weak’. How can we understand this?
The Rambam in laws relating to Pesach answers a fascinating question. What happens if you have somebody who doesn’t like matza, doesn’t want to eat the matzah, but those around this person insist that they have to eat it, and so they eat it, they digest it, and they have had no intention whatsoever of performing the mitzvah. Does it count or not?
The Rambam says yes, they have performed the mitzvah.
However, elsewhere in laws relating to the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, the following question is asked. If you happen to hear the sound of shofar, and you have no intention whatsoever for that to be your mitzvah, does it count?
During the coronavirus when we were all under lockdown, I blew the shofar at home for myself and my wife and then we went for a walk, and it was beautiful to hear the sound of the shofar from so many homes in our area, because people couldn’t go to shul.
Now what would have happened had somebody walked past a house, heard the shofar, and arrived home thinking, “Hey, I’ve performed the mitzvah of shofar!” although they didn’t have the intention at the time. The Rambam answers that such a person is not yotsei – he’s not fulfilled his obligations of shofar.
So what’s the difference therefore between matza and shofar?
The Maggid Mishnah answers that when it comes to a mitzvah performed physically, it is a mitzvah but when it comes to sound, it is not. The reason is that in the case of the mitzvah performed physically – physically that person digested the matzah! You can’t argue against that. But when it comes to sound it’s only valid if you concentrate, if you appreciate the meaning of it and if it therefore uplifts you.
The Vilna Gaon’s interpretation now makes so much sense and imparts to us a very relevant lesson for our times. It’s not good enough to just perform mitzvot mechanically in an active and physical way. We also need to listen. And when we hear about our faith and strive to internalise its values, it needs concentration, it needs appreciation.
Gone are the days where belief was just passed down automatically from one generation to the next. Unless we are convinced about what it is we’re believing in, there is a danger it could be dropped.
Let us therefore strengthen the resonance of our tradition to enrich our lives and to guarantee the continuity of our faith.