Here’s a nugget from the Shem Mishmuel, Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain (1855-1926), on the verse (Exodus 15:1), “Then Moses sang, and the Children of Israel…” Intrigued by Rashi’s observation that “it arose in their mind to sing,” he writes:
Everything we do starts as a thought. All actions begin with an intention. Furthermore, the measure of the mitzvot we perform is connected to the intention and passion we bring to them. It was nothing special that the Israelites sang at the shore of the sea. Indeed, they weren’t even singing, in the sense that it was a response to the holiness of the moment, and “Shekhinah spoke from within their throats.” Rather, this: that they sang demonstrated their great desire to offer up songs and praise to the Holy One, a desire that propelled them to the heights of prophecy, and to the singing of the Song of the Sea. That was what was special: that “it arose in their mind to sing” in the first place.
I love this teaching, and I’m disturbed by it. I love it because it reminds me of the value of setting my intention, again and again, as I go about my day. I’m disturbed because I’ve always learned and taught (Pirkei Avot 1:17), lo ha midrash ha’ikar, ele hama’aseh: “What’s essential is not the intention, but the action.” “Judaism is a religion of deed, not creed,” was drummed it my head, and I’m not prepared to jettison that notion for one that could be used to excuse bad behavior with an all-too-easy “Oh, but they meant well.”
The solution, I think, is this: our commandments are divided into two categories, the ritual and the ethical (bein adam lamakom and bein adam lachaveiro). It’s not a perfect division, of course, and figuring out where the ethics lies in a Jewish ritual, or how to uncover ritual in an ethical deed is a great exercise. But broadly speaking, the division holds, and it is the marker between the Shem Mishmuel’s teaching and the one from Pirkei Avot. For ritual commandments, it is indeed all in the intention; but when it comes to our actions in the interpersonal realm, even the most heartfelt “thoughts and prayers” are worthless, when not followed by deeds.