Reb Yisrael of Ruzhin paid a surprise visit to his Hasidim and found them sitting around a table, idly eating and drinking. The rebbe frowned, clearly disappointed at the actions of his students.
One among them stood and said, “Rebbe, I heard Reb Pinchas of Korets once say that a gathering such as this — Hasidim reveling in friendship –— could be likened to the mitzvah of Torah study.”
Reb Yisrael said, “I would not think to contradict Reb Pinchas, but the analogy depends on how the thing is done.”
“But all we are doing is talking and eating,” another student said. “As long as we recite the proper benediction, how can we do this incorrectly?”
Reb Yisrael replied, “It is a matter of intention. If you place yourself last that others may go first, then your act is selfless and holy. If you place yourself first, it is selfish and smacks of idolatry. If you do something for another or for God with no thought of reward or gain, you are hallowing the deed and uplifting the act. In that case, your action is holy. When you do something to further your own ends, you are debasing the deed and concealing the Divine. In that case, your action is sinful.”
Still not satisfied, the Hasid said, “Rebbe, what if my action is itself sinful but my intention is pure? What if, heaven forbid, I speak ill of another to save a friend from being hurt. Is that a sin or not?”
“Intention is everything,” Reb Yisrael said. If your intention is for the sake of heaven –— that is, if it is for the good of the other and not to benefit yourself — even a sinful act can reveal the Light of God.”
Here is the essence of spiritual life: putting others first and acting lishmah (for its sake), for the sake of the deed and not for the sake of yourself.
The self is like the foam on the crest of a wave: a natural consequence of the nature of the ocean. You would not think to erase the foam any more than you would think to increase the foam. You just accept it as it is for what it is. The same is true of the self. You cannot erase it; you are it. You need not starve it or feed it; just let it be.
Letting the self be is acting lishmah: acting with the self but not for the self. Acting lishmah does not increase or decrease the self, it simply allows it to function as it was intended: as a vehicle through which God can act godly.
Mitzvah: Divine commandment.
Each morning, observant Jews say, “Elohai neshamah sh’natatabi t’horah he: God, the soul You plant within me is pure.” Your soul is pure, transparent to the Divine. Yet, the way the soul is expressed in the world is often tainted with ego. The soul manifests in three ways, called the Three Garments of the Soul: thought, word, and deed. When these are done selflessly, they, like the soul itself, are transparent to God and allow the Light of the Divine to flow through them. Your thoughts are free of selfishness; your words are free of deceit; your actions are free of coercion. But when the Garments are stained by selfishness, dishonesty, and exploitation, the purity of the soul no longer shines through them. The Garments become opaque, and God appears hidden from the world. It is not that the Divine Light no longer shines; it is that you no longer allow the Divine Light to shine through you.