There’s a saying about the road to hell.
But one of the things I love about Judaism is how intention is integral to experience. When I pray, my kavannah (intention) is an essential component of the act. If the intention isn’t there, however, does my prayer not “count”?
Of course it does. Developing the skills and habits of prayer carries its own merit. How much is a subject of debate among commentators. Although one who believes that prayer without kavannah has little merit points out that ONE session of prayer with proper kavannah will retroactively cause the previous ones to count. Why? Because it’s obvious that (prayer with kavannah) is how one WANTED to pray, but was distracted.
But that’s not the part I consider to be most brilliant.
If I sincerely intend to perform a mitzvah, but am somehow stopped from acting, I get “credit” for it. Let’s say I intend to visit someone in the hospital. I drive to the hospital, stop by the room, but the person is away and getting tests or a treatment. I wait for as long as I can, but end up leaving before they return. According to scholars, it is just as if I had performed the mitzvah.
Which is great, until you consider the opposite. Let’s say I’m having a bad day, and I’m starving, and decide to just throw in the towel and hit the local cheeseburger joint. But a traffic jam makes it impossible to get there. After sitting in traffic for way too long, I decide I don’t need the cheeseburger that much.
Since my intention was to violate the mitzvah of keeping kosher, you’d think it would count against me, right?
When it comes to positive mitzvot, it truly is the thought which counts because we recognize that our ability to execute is really in God’s hands.
Meanwhile our days may be filled with cruel thoughts, nefarious plans, or rude ideas but if they lack execution, they lack meaning.
As we prepare ourselves to stand before God, as we review of our actions over the past year, this is a powerful lesson in spiritual accounting.
In the realm of Jewish thinking, it is the road the heaven which is paved with good intentions.