Which is more important- intention or action?
Once there was a child who was asked by her parents to bring food to some hungry guests beloved to the parents. While she prepared the food, she accidentally cut herself with a knife and was in much pain. When she delivered the food, she was in a bad mood and felt resentful. She put the food before the guests and went away without any nice words.
Another time, her brother was asked to give food to some guests. He was really excited about going outside to play, so he figured he wouldn’t bother making the food, and instead just cheerfully delivered the message- “My parents send their blessings to you! They love you so much!” Then he left to go play outside.
Obviously, the ideal would be for the children to deliver both the food and the message of love. But, if they will only deliver one or the other, which is best?
Obviously, if the guests are really hungry for food, the food is best.
Not only is the food what they really need, but the food actually is the true message of love. It is because the parents love the guests that they want to send the food. The love is embodied in the food. If the children can also be messengers of love, expressing loving words when they deliver the food, all the better. But if not, the food is the true message from the parents. The children don’t have to feel it. They just have to be the messenger.
We are like the children. The most important thing is for us to be “G-d’s messengers” by doing right action- action that serves the moment we are in, regardless of whether we are truly “feeling it”.
On the other hand, the classic Hassidic text called the "Tanya" says that even though right action is the most important thing, our acts of service (mitzvot) are not really alive unless they are done with kavanah- right intention. Kavanah consists of two opposing qualities- fear (yirah) and love (ahavah).
Love is easy to understand. Love sends the food. But fear? Why would we want to be fearful?
When I was in second or third grade, I was in a theater camp. There was a class I really wanted to take with a certain teacher. When I got to class, he said I wasn’t on the list, so he sent me to the front desk to make sure I was signed up.
I went to the front desk and found out that I was signed up. I was so happy that I barged back into the class, totally interrupting the teacher and pissing him off. He snapped at me in a nasty way, and I was in shock, because I loved him and the class so much.
What was the problem? Love without fear!
Fear in the spiritual sense, yirah, doesn’t mean a kind of neurotic terror or worry. It means respect. In means having the awareness to know how to honor the moment; it means to know how you are affecting the situation. This kind of spiritual fear is actually an expression of love. It is love expressed as restraint. In fact, if the girl in the above story had more of this kind of fear, she could have avoided cutting herself with the knife. Then she would have expressed the love too.
The Tanya explains that fear and love are like two wings of a bird. The bird cannot fly with only one wing! It must have both. In fact, fear and love are not really separate at all. They are both expressions of the same quality of wakefulness. As you bring your awareness to fully meet this moment, there is a natural sense of care and respect that arises, as well as a quality of love and bliss. Fear and love are the right and left hands of awareness itself.
This Saturday night we move from this week of Hesed- Loving-Kindness, into the week of Gevurah- Fear, Strength and Restraint. As it says in the traditional formula before counting the Omer, “Bidhilu orhimu- with fear and love- to unify the Divine Name.”
The Divine name is unified through you, in this moment, as you give full attention to this moment of Being unfolding. May we be awake to activate all the middot- love and fear, ambition and humility, envisioning and working toward what could be, while trusting what is.
Moadim L’simkha- good times!