Mitzvot without Intent

Which is greater, performing a mitzvah without the requisite intention, or having the intention but failing to do the mitzvah?  For example, a fellow really wants to eat matzah on Pesach but is unable to do so due to circumstances beyond his control. Maybe he’s lost at sea, locked away in prison, or his declining health does not allow him to eat matzah.  Another person has no interest in eating matzah, but does so anyway. Maybe he happens to eat what he believes to be crackers during the week of Pesach and it turned out to be matzah. Or maybe his bread didn’t rise as planned, and when he thought he was eating chametz, it was really matzah.

Of these two types of scenarios, which is preferred? No doubt that in the ideal world a person should have both the proper intentions and the proper actions.  But when push comes to shove, which is primary, the action or the intentions?

Towards the end of Parshat Nitzavim the Torah tells us:

Surely, this commandment which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”  Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. (Devarim 30”11-14)

The Bechor Shor shares a powerful lesson with regards to the verse’s usage of the words mouth and heart.  The mouth represents action and the heart represents intent. A person needs both. The Bechor Shor writes that if a mitzvah is performed without intent it is “Aino Klum,” it is worthless.  However a mitzvah that is not performed at all, but the intention was there, is “Aino Kol Kach,” is not much.

Not much is better than nothing.  The Bechor Shor is telling us that the intentions are more important than the action.  God wants our hearts, not our words and actions. While one could perhaps argue that for some commandments like feeding the poor and building a fence around one’s house it is the actions that are the most important.  Nonetheless, in the season of Teshuva, repentance, in which we currently find ourselves, we must head this lesson of the Bechor Shor and focus our hearts in serving our Master in Heaven.