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Actions or Heart: Which Ranks Higher


Are pure, lofty intentions more important than actually doing the mitzva? Is performing a mitzva wholeheartedly better than doing it properly? Does doing mitzvos on autopilot have any value? Are thoughts, meditation, and concentration alone worth anything? Is the rule “Rachmana leba ba’ei” – “Hashem wants the heart” always true? Does being “religious at heart” bear water? And why? Of this and more in the coming article.


In this week’s parasha we learn how the Jewish nation stood at Sinai: “And he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people, and they said, ‘All that the Lord spoke we will do and we will hear’” (Shemos 24:7). The Gemara (Shabbos 88a) describes the nation’s elevated spiritual stature in making this statement — agreeing to perform whatever would be demanded of them. While normally, one hears the commands and only then agrees (or disagrees) to preform them, here Am Yisroel did just the opposite. The Gemara adds: “When Am Yisroel answered they would first do and then hear, Hashem responded: ‘Who revealed the ministering angels’ secret to My sons?’”

In this week’s article we will focus on one aspect of this famous declaration: what is more important – actions or intentions? Is it better to meditate on the inner meanings and kabalistic significance of every mitzva, or focus on the practical aspects of fulfilling it? If forced to choose, which takes precedence – the action, or proper intention? Which mitzvos are incomplete without intention, and which mitzvos can be fulfilled perfectly with no special intention at all? What intention is necessary for an action to be a mitzva, and which intentions are recommended — but not essential?

Hashem Wants Your Heart

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 106b) compares the level of piety of two generations. While in Rabbi Yehuda’s generation their knowledge of Torah was much less than in the later generation of Abaye and Rava, as soon as Rabbi Yehuda just removed one shoe (in preparation for prayer) the sky would cloud over, and rain would come pouring down. On the other hand, during Abaye and Rava’s times, despite their prolific Torah expertise, prayers were often unanswered. What was the difference between them? The Gemara answers: “Hashem wants the heart.” Since the earlier generations’ heart was purer and more connected to G-d, their prayers were answered immediately – and at times, even beforehand, while later generations were not, Torah knowledge notwithstanding.

The Gemara cites the pasuk: “…As man sees with his eyes, while the Lord sees into the heart” (Shmuel I, 16:7) to describe this comparison.

The Zohar (Trauma 162b; Raya Mehimana, Ki Tetze 281b) mentions the oft-quoted words: “G-d wants the heart”, to teach us that serving G-d must be wholehearted service, not mere lip-service.

Rabbenu Bachye (Devarim 21:10) quotes Shlomo Hamelech in Mishlei (23:26): “My son, give Me your heart, and let your eyes keep My ways”. People are attracted to the view they see with their eyes, but it is the heart’s intention that really matters. If the heart longs to serve G-d, all subsequent actions will follow the Torah. And the opposite too, is true: one who strays from the Torah in his heart, will eventually mirror his wayward spirit in sinful activities. This is why Shlomo Hamelech instructs us “… Give Me your heart”. The Yerushalmi (Brachos 1:8) adds: “G-d says: if your heart and eyes are Mine – you are all Mine; and if they are not Mine – neither are you.”

In Pirkei Avos we learn: “Rabbi Yochanan said to them [his disciples]: Go and see which is the best trait for a person to acquire. Said Rabbi Eliezer: A good eye. Said Rabbi Yehoshua: A good friend. Said Rabbi Yossei: A good neighbor. Said Rabbi Shimon: To see the future]. Said Rabbi Elazar: A good heart. Said he [Rabbi Yochanan] to them: I prefer the words of Elazar the son of Arach to yours, for his words include all of yours” (2:10).

The Akeida (61) explains what this discussion was. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai had charged them with defining what was the most important attribute one should acquire. Every rabbi chose the point which matched his personality and nature. While some had to struggle to eliminate improper ways, Rabbi Eliezer ben Arach was “pure hearted”. This attribute was behind his meteoric ascent, and it – announced Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai – was most important of all. A heart free of all external, unnecessary influences, purely directed to G-d’s service, is most important of all.

A Warm Jewish Heart

Many feel connected to G-d, claiming they are religious at heart, but their actions don’t quite reflect that. If purity of heart is so important, why isn’t being Jewish or religious at heart enough?

While we might think this question only became relevant once whole segments of the Jewish Nation left religious practices, this question appears in the Kuzari, written over 900 years ago. In his final chapter (5, 26-28) the Kuzari raises this question, answering that it is indeed true – wholehearted wishing to fulfil a mitzva when being physically unable to do so, is accepted and beloved to Hashem. However, one who can perform a mitzva – he has the energy, tools, and time – and does not do so, choosing to follow his physical desires instead, is not really being religious at heart. He is not religious at all.

Furthermore, the Kuzari explains, G-d does not actually need us to perform the mitzvos. However, those are the means by which G-d can give us spiritual reward.

Another question raised by the Rekanti, a great kabalistic thinker from over 700 years ago – is why do we need to pray? If G-d knows all our wishes and desires, why do we have to physically express the words with our lips?

His answer, based on kabalistic understanding of the world, is that in order for something to come into the world, it requires physical action. Only when words are uttered in the world, do they have the power to effect change. Although we may not see them, words’ effects are certainly visible. This is why Torah-study involves actively saying the words aloud, and the mitzva of prayer requires us to verbally express our prayers.

The Or Hachayim (Shemos 20:20) explains the pasuk, “Gods of silver or gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves” using semantic allusion. Foreign gods are of two kinds. There is a “god of silver”, or כסף (also meaning ‘yearning’) – a god one yearns to worship. Then there is a “god of gold” a god worshiped for the money. One who worships the god of gold might excuse himself as being a “Jew at heart”, but the Torah warns: both gods of כסף – desire — and gods of gold, are forbidden.

The Chida points out how old this argument is (Pnei David, Bereshis 1:22). He quotes Rabbi Yeshaya Basan who explained the pasuk “…and every imagination of his heart was only evil all the time” (Bereshis 6:5) – the word only limits, or restricts. “Only bad” is not all bad, it is “slightly bad”, “only somewhat evil”. Excuses of being “good at heart” with only negligible bad is an ancient argument utilized by the Yetzer Hara from time immemorial to tempt mankind into doing wrong things and claiming, “it’s what’s in the heart that counts”.

The Malbim (Mishlei 4:23) explains the pasuk: “From every interdict guard your heart, for the issues of life [come] out of it”: Shlomo Hamelech teaches us here that the heart’s inclination is the main thing, and everything else is born of it. Therefore, that core must be safeguarded faithfully, because all of life’s choices result from it. However, this might lead us to believe that the goal justifies the means. Of this, Shlomo Hamelech continues (ibid 24): “Take crooked speech away from yourself, and put devious lips far away from you” – also our actions must be clean and pure. As we live in a physical world, our actions must reflect our goals.

The Netziv (Vayikra 26:43, Ha’amek Davar) follows this line of thought in explaining a pasuk in Hoshea (8: 2-3): “To Me Yisroel will cry: ‘My G-d! We know You!’ Yisroel has cast off the Good One; the enemy shall pursue him”.

People call out to Hashem: “We know You; we love G-d and want to serve Him with all out hearts. Why has He deserted us?” To them the Navi answers: “You have abandoned the Good.” What is that ultimate Good? It is Torah. Knowing and connecting with G-d without mitzvos and Torah study is impossible. And the sad result is: “The enemy shall pursue him”.

To summarize this point:

While it is true that the heart’s intention are most crucial in our relationship with Hashem, without the actions that should result from one’s thoughts, intentions are meaningless.


But what ranks higher in importance – intention or actions? Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (Nefesh Hachaim 84-87) explains that the Yetzer Hara tries to convince people that mitzvos without the best spiritual intention are worth nothing. Then, occupied in holy thoughts and preparations, the Yetzer Hara delays people from performing the mitzvos until the proper time for performing them has passed. This prevents them from actually doing the mitzvos.

Think of the following scenario:

After the Beis Hamikdash will be rebuilt two Jews arrive in Jerusalem to bring their Korban Pesach. One eats his Pesach with no special intentions or thoughts, relying upon the halacha that once a sacrifice is dedicated, all actions are considered having been done with proper intentions. The roasted lamb is eaten at his Seder table with gusto — he thoroughly enjoys his lambchops.

Another Jew also sets up his Seder. He also has a Korban Pesach, but he is so excited to finally merit bringing a korban and with the kabalistic meaning and hidden explanations for the sacrifice, that he completely forgets about actually eating it. So absorbed in the story of the Exodus and connection with Hashem, the roasted lamb gets forgotten, and midnight passes without having tasted from his Korban Pesach.

While it might be heartbreaking to think of the meat-lover’s loss of spiritual pleasures, he has fulfilled the mitzva and will forever enjoy its eternal reward. Nevertheless, the second one’s loss is a million times worse.

While the holy patriarchs, Chanoch, and others, effected deep change and corrected kabalistic “worlds” with only their holy thoughts, that was before the Torah was given to mankind. Once the Torah was given at Sinai, nothing spiritual can occur without an actually mitzva (unless one is physically incapable of doing it, in which case the mitzva can be performed in the format of “our lips will be in place of bulls”, i.e. saying with words what we wish we could have done with our actions.)


How do these two concepts jive with each other? On the one hand, the main thing is our intention, and on the other hand – intention without concrete action is meaningless.

Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin explains that intentions serve us like an amplifier. Ever since the Torah was given, eternal reward depends upon our mitzvos. Physical, tangible actions on the ground are essential — intention is not enough. However, intention still retains tremendous power – to amplify our mitzvos. How does this work? Let’s look at the two Jews in Jerusalem on the Seder night. The first who simply enjoyed his lamb chops has fulfilled a mitzva. He has something, albeit small, but something. Even something with the smallest numerical value – one. But he has something in his hand, and if he’d add intention, devotion, and aspirations to it — as many zeros as he can — he could multiply it endlessly. However, the second one, engrossed in his thoughts and intentions, might have many zeros, but the number before them — is missing.

Hashem Wants YOU

Rabbi Shmuel Rosovsky (Shiurei Reb Shmuel, Sanhedrin 106b) explains the Gemara (Succah 53a): “At the Simchas Beis Hashoeva Hillel would say: ‘If I am here, everything is here, and if I am not here – nobody is here’. One who is glad in fulfilling a mitzva and praises Hashem for it, brings himself, his “I” into the relationship with G-d. But when the “I” of a person is not there, there is the action, but there’s nobody behind it.

Rav Shmuel explains that also Hillel’s next quote — “To the place that I love – that’s where my legs take me” — follows the same idea. Our hearts rule over our bodies, and where the heart wants to go, that’s where it leads the rest of the body. This, explains Rav Shmuel, completes the above-mentioned idea. A mitzva is not merely a physical activity – it must encompass our entire being. Both body and heart.

Rabbenu Chananel (Succah 53a) in quoting the Yerushalmi (Succah 5:4), explains the background for these statements: when Hillel saw people rejoicing at Simchas Beis Hashoeva he realized that their joyful movements lacked heartfelt intentions. In his statements he reminded them to put their hearts into the festivities. “G-d does not need humans for perfection,” he reminded them. “For that He has angels, as many as He wants. Hashem wants us to praise Him with our hearts, which angels don’t have, as Shlomo Hamelech says: ‘My son, give me your heart’” (Mishlei 23:26).

Na’ase V’nishma

Now let us return to the pasuk we started with. Avos D’Rabbi Nosson (chapter 22) quotes Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa: “One whose actions are more than his wisdom, his wisdom remains, but if his wisdom is greater than his actions – it does not.” His proof is from the above proclamation of Na’ase V’Nishma. Actions speak louder than words.

Wisdom, intension, thoughts, and concepts are of great importance, but they must sit on a concrete foundation of actions, the halachos as we were taught at Sinai. While a thirsty man would surely say water is more important than the cup, without a cup the water would never reach his lips.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (Avos Drabbi Natan) compares a knowledgeable person who does not fulfill the halachos properly to the proficient craftsman who lacks tools. He lacks the technical capabilities for bringing his wisdom to fruition. And the same is true for the scrupulous person who lacks wisdom – he has the finest tools, but does not know how to use them.

While actions take precedence, knowledge and insight must lead the way, to lead us to fulfill G-d Will to the best of our abilities.


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