April 15, 2024
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Important Intent

My past two pieces presented Avot’s definition of the world’s goal as glorifying Hashem. This goal should impact not only what we do, but also why we do it.

Chazal emphasized the importance of kavana (intention) in many places. The Ramban saw this as the intention of the command (found in K’rias Shema) to “serve Hashem with all of our heart.” (Devrarim 11:13)

 

While Fulfilling Mitzvos

Intention is indeed central to mitzvah performance.

The Rambam (Makot 3:16) asserts that only mitzvot done with proper intention gain us entry into the next world. It is not only about what we do but also about why we do it.

Rav Kook (“Mussar Avicha,” p.39) used the importance of kavana to explain why Rav Hamnuna devoted significant time to tefillah at the expense of Torah learning (which is more important) (Shabbat 10b). Since everything we do with the correct kavanacontributes to kevod shamayim (the glory of God), we should appreciate and fully focus upon whatever mitzvah we are performing without considering other (even more rewarding) opportunities.

Kavana is also the great equalizer. Though we differ in terms of what we are able to invest and accomplish, we are all equally able to have the right kavana. The rabbis of Yavneh used this fact to encourage respect for the farmers who spent their days in the fields instead of the Beit Midrash (Berachot 17a). Though they studied less Torah, the farmers deserved respect, as their actions were of equally pure intent.

Rava (ibid) made many statements about the importance of kavana. He taught that “it would be preferable for one who fulfills mitzvot shelo lishma (without proper intention) to not have been created!” People who serve Hashem with ulterior motives take what is meant to focus on Hashem and make it about themselves. As this diametrically opposes the goal of creation, it would be better for such a person not to exist.

Rava also saw our intentions as determining whether Torah learning heals or (even) harms. Torah study is an elixir of life for those who engage in it with proper intention and an elixir of death for those who engage otherwise (Ta’anit 7a, Avot 1:13). Our mere intention can be the difference between life and death.

 

While Committing Aveiros

Rava took this idea further by asserting the redeeming value of positive kavana even when accompanying sin. Even when a person is involved in something inappropriate, his noble intentions keep him connected (at least on some level) to Hashem (Berachot 63a). Obviously, we should always strive to do the right thing, but even when we fail, our connection with Hashem continues as long as we stay focused on Him.

The Rambam (Mishnah Berachot 9:1) expresses a similar idea when explaining the mishnah’s interpretation of the words “b’chol levavcha” as commanding us to serve Hashem with both our yeitzarim — the yetzer tov and yetzer hara (Berachot 54a). How are we meant to serve Hashem with our yetzer hara? The Rambam explains that even when sinning, even when following the yetzer hara, we should remember our relationship with Hashem. We should maintain our connection with Hashem at all times; even when our actions do not meet His expectations, we sustain our relationship with Him through proper intention and focus.

Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak took the significance of our kavanah even further when he said that “an aveirah committed lishmah is greater than a mitzvah performed shelo lishmah.” (Nazir 23b) Not only are positive intentions (even when accompanying sin) valuable, they outweigh rote mitzvah performance.

Sinful intentions are also significant. The Gemara (Kiddushin 81b) tells how Rav Chiya bar Ashi did lifelong teshuva for a sin he had intended to commit, even though he did not actually commit it. Though he did not actually sin, he felt that his (mere) inappropriate kavana required teshuva.

 

Right Intent

Kavana’s significance makes identifying its correct form of the utmost importance.

The third mishnah of Avot’s first perek warns us of the type of intention to avoid: “Antignus Ish Socho taught: Do not be like avadim (servants) who serve the master on the condition that they receive a reward. Rather, be like avadim who serve the master without the condition of receiving a reward, and let the fear of shamayim be upon you.” Fear of heaven should dispel selfish, ulterior motives.

The second perek of Avot identifies the ideal kavana: “V’chol ma’asecha yi’heyu l’shem shamayim — Let all your actions be for Heaven’s sake.” (Avot 2:12) The world was created for the glory of God. This goal should also be our intention.

Obviously, acting for Heaven’s sake precludes aiming for personal reward, but what exactly does it require?

On the most basic level, “l’shem Shamayim” means seeking to fulfill Hashem’s will, doing mitzvot because He commanded us to. Such performance is the most basic connotation of avodat Hashem. We serve the God who redeemed us from slavery in Mitzrayim the same way a slave serves his master (Rashi: Shemot 20:2, Devarim 5:15). We reinforce this intention by reciting the bracha of “asher kidshanu b’mitzvosav v’tzivanu” before performing (most) mitzvot. The bracha defines our performance as a fulfillment of Hashem’s command.

On a deeper level, “l’shem Shamayim” means identifying with not just our religious obligations but also Hashem’s interests in this world. The Mesillat Yesharim’s (19) definition of the intention we should have while davening reflects this deeper level. He explains that we should pray for redemption not in order to end our painful exile but, rather, to increase Hashem’s glory in our world.

Ideally, mitzvah observance should have a similar goal. We should follow Hashem’s will not just to fulfill our obligations, but because we care about what He wants. In the words of Rav Yochanan (Berachot 17a), we are fortunate to grow in Torah because we know that “it gives nachat ruach (pleasure) to Hashem.” We should learn Torah, daven, and fulfill mitzvot because they are what please Him.

Contemporary society emphasizes personal self-interest. This has also impacted religious perspectives, causing many to see religion as a means of personal fulfillment. We should strive to focus our religious observance on serving Hashem, not realizing our self-interests.

In the words of the Kotzker Rebbe, “We need to ensure that what we perform ‘l’shem Shamayim’ is actually l’shem Shamayim.”

 

Kol Ma’aseinu

The Mishnah could have conveyed its message by saying, “Ma’asecha yi’heyu l’shem shamayim.” What does the word “kol” add?

Rabbeinu Yonah explains that the term “kol” extends the mishnah’s message beyond mitzvot to include even devarim shel reshus (voluntary deeds). Even things (we generally view as) beyond the purview of avodat Hashem should be done l’shem shamayim.

Indeed, Pirkei Avot emphasizes the importance of action for the sake of heaven in many additional contexts. Our gatherings (Avot 4:11), community work (Avot 2:2) and even arguments (Avot 5:17) should all be for Heaven’s sake.

The Rambam (Shemonah Perakim 5, De’ot 3) develops this idea and connects it to the word “da’eihu (know Him)” used by the aforementioned pasuk in Mishlei. Everything should be done to increase our knowledge of Hashem and foster a stronger relationship with Him. We should connect our work, eating and drinking, marital relations and other mundane actions to the higher purposes of knowing God and glorifying His Name.

 

Trickling Down

It is crucial to ensure that our understanding of the world’s purpose and of our existence trickles down to our daily lives, to the intention that accompanies the minutiae of our lives. Every aspect of life, not just mitzvah performance, should be directed l’shem Shamayim and be motivated by the goal of enhancing Kevod Shamayim.


Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.

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