How important is intent in the performance of mitzvoth? Is it enough to mechanically perform the mitzvah, or is the intent to fulfill one’s obligation not only preferred, but indispensable? This debate has been ongoing since Talmudic times, with no clear resolution. Many focus this debate on seemingly “ritualistic” issues, such as prayer, shofar, megillah, matzah and the like; the implications of this debate are no less important in the realm of mitzvoth between man and man. If, to use an extreme example, money falls from one’s pocket unnoticed, and is picked up by a poor person, has one fulfilled the mitzvah of tzedakah? A needy person has been helped; isn’t that what tzedakah is all about? Or, perhaps, one might argue that interpersonal mitzvoth are meant to create feelings of empathy towards the needy, to build relationships and to create community. Surely this cannot be done by accident! The idea that attitude is important is reflected in the teaching that one who gives a little less with a smile is more praiseworthy than one who gives more, but begrudgingly.
One could even argue that interpersonal mitzvoth should be done without the intent to fulfill G-d’s command. Focusing on our obligations to our Creator at the expense of our obligations to man brings with it the risk of viewing people as objects in our desire to perform G-d’s will. Interpersonal mitzvoth should be done because we want to help, because we want to alleviate suffering and bring joy to man, not because we are commanded to do so by G-d. It is for this reason that mitzvoth between man and man have no accompanying blessing, reminding us that we are carrying out the command of G-d. Even absent such a command, we should still be helping others. As Maimonides explains in his introduction to chapter six of Pirkei Avot one must not say, “I desire to steal, but will not because of a Divine command”. Such an attitude reflects a failure to internalize the message of the mitzvoth. It is only in the area of ritual that one should base one’s motivation for performance on the command of G-d. Absent such a command, there would be no logical reason to, for example, keep kosher. According to Maimonides, it is actually preferable if one desires to eat non-kosher food, but refrains from doing so due to the Divine command.
Sefer Shemot is, in essence, about building community. A shared history (often one of hardship), a mission, and a vision for implementation are the integral parts of such a process. Thus, as Nachmanides explains, Shemot is divided into three parts: physical redemption from slavery (shared history), spiritual destiny at Sinai (mission), and a tabernacle manifesting G-d’s presence in the world (implementation). Yet an enduring community cannot be built by command. It must be done through a feeling of a shared destiny, not to fulfill obligations. The term nedava, a voluntary gift, appears over and over again during the construction for the mishkan. Truth be told, all Jews had to have a hand in the construction and upkeep of the mishkan, whether they wanted to or not. But the mishkan—the symbol of Jewish unity—can only endure if people give their gifts voluntarily.
“And they said to Moshe, the people are bringing more than enough for the work that G-d has commanded” (36:5). When one gives because one has been commanded, one looks for ways to give less. When one gives because one yearns to help, one gives more than is actually needed, and gladly goes beyond the “commands”. Imagine if such an attitude were to be the norm in the Jewish world of today! May we be blessed to perform our obligations voluntarily.