The concept of “intention” is one which, in Jewish thinking, is extremely powerful.
If you intend to do a mitzvah, but are somehow thwarted, you still get credit for it. If I intend to visit a friend in the hospital, but when I get there I find that he’s in the middle of a checkup so I can’t get in to see him, I am still “credited” with having observed the commandment of visiting the sick.
Meanwhile, if I intend to do something wrong, but stop myself from acting, I do not suffer the heavenly consequence of having committed a sin. So if I stand in a dark alley, planning to rob a passer-by, but think better of it and walk away, I have not violated the commandment of “thou shalt not steal”.
The intention I have when I begin to eat will affect which blessing(s) I say. My intention for whether I am or am not part of a group around me affects the things I pray.
Judaism places a high value on action – what we do matters both to the world around us and in the grand cosmic heavenly scale. But what I INTEND to do, and what I INTEND while I do (or don’t do) it also carries weight.
This is most evident when we pray. It’s lovely to believe that if everyone could be 100% sincere in their feelings, we could just toss out the siddur and pray from our heart. But the fact is that what we say matters in a way that goes beyond lack of creativity or connection to our innermost thoughts.
And those who show up to services and say each word in the prayerbook without putting the weight of belief behind them is doing… well, nothing. Making noises to the cosmos.
It is only through our intention – saying the words AND meaning what we say – that we are able to connect to the Heavenly Source, and make our prayers heard.