It is not that attachment of man’s thought and intellect to G-d is intrinsically superior to attachment through the actual, practical fulfillment of the mitzvot dependent on action,

וְלֹא שֶׁדְּבֵיקוּת הַמַּחֲשָׁבָה וְשֵׂכֶל הָאָדָם בּוֹ יִתְבָּרֵךְ, הִיא מִצַּד עַצְמָהּ לְמַעְלָה מִדְּבֵיקוּת קִיּוּם הַמִּצְוֹת מַעֲשִׂיּוֹת בְּפוֹעַל מַמָּשׁ,

for as will be explained further on the unity with G-d achieved by performance of mitzvot is described in the same terms as the unity of husband and wife—“kiddushin,” as we say in the blessing preceding the fulfillment of a mitzvah: “…G-d…, Who sanctified us (קִדְּשָׁנוּ) with His commandments….”

כְּמוֹ שֶׁיִּתְבָּאֵר לְקַמָּן,

Obviously, the quality of man’s attachment to G-d through kavanah cannot surpass that of the performance of mitzvot, which possesses the G-d-given ability to unite man with Him. Where, then, lies the superiority of kavanah over actual performance of mitzvot (described earlier as paralleling the superiority of soul over body)?

The Alter Rebbe now goes on to say that, like the actual mitzvot themselves, man’s kavanah in performing them expresses G-d’s will. It is the illumination of Divine will contained in kavanah that is superior. In the Alter Rebbe’s words:

Rather, kavanah is superior because this, too, is G-d’s will—that one attach himself to Him by intellect and thought, and [by] the kavanah of the active mitzvot, and by one’s kavanah during the recital of Shema and in prayer and other blessings,

אֶלָּא, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁזֶּהוּ גַם כֵּן רְצוֹנוֹ יִתְבָּרֵךְ – לְדָבְקָה בְּשֵׂכֶל וּמַחֲשָׁבָה וְכַוָּונַת הַמִּצְוֹת מַעֲשִׂיּוֹת וּבְכַוָּונַת קְרִיאַת שְׁמַע וּתְפִלָּה וּשְׁאָר בְּרָכוֹת,

and the illumination of the supernal will that radiates and is clothed in this kavanah

וְהֶאָרַת רָצוֹן הָעֶלְיוֹן הַזֶּה, הַמְּאִירָה וּמְלוּבֶּשֶׁת בְּכַוָּונָה זוֹ,

is infinitely greater and loftier than the illumination of the supernal will that radiates and is clothed in the performance of the mitzvot themselves, in action and speech, without kavanah.

הִיא גְדוֹלָה לְאֵין קֵץ, לְמַעְלָה מַּעְלָה מֵהֶאָרַת רָצוֹן הָעֶלְיוֹן הַמְּאִירָה וּמְלוּבֶּשֶׁת בְּקִיּוּם הַמִּצְוֹת עַצְמָן בְּמַעֲשֶׂה וּבְדִבּוּר בְּלִי כַוָּונָה –

This superiority of kavanah is similar to the superiority of the light of the soul over the body, which is a vessel and garment for the soul—just as the body of the actual mitzvah is a vessel and garment for its kavanah. For this reason, then, the performance of a mitzvah is likened to a body and its kavanah to a soul.

כְּגוֹדֶל מַעֲלַת אוֹר הַנְּשָׁמָה עַל הַגּוּף, שֶׁהוּא כְּלִי וּמַלְבּוּשׁ הַנְּשָׁמָה, כְּמוֹ גּוּף הַמִּצְוָה עַצְמָהּ שֶׁהוּא כְּלִי וּמַלְבּוּשׁ לְכַוָּונָתָהּ.

True, although both the actual mitzvah and its kavanah contain the same [supernal] will, which is perfectly simple, i.e., changeless and indivisible, G-d forbid, so that it cannot be said that kavanah contains “more” of G-d’s will and performance contains “less,” and [this will] is united with G-d’s essence and being in perfect unity;

וְאַף שֶׁבִּשְׁתֵּיהֶן, בַּמִּצְוָה וּבְכַוָּונָתָהּ, מְלוּבָּשׁ רָצוֹן אֶחָד, פָּשׁוּט בְּתַכְלִית הַפְּשִׁיטוּת בְּלִי שׁוּם שִׁינּוּי וְרִיבּוּי חַס וְשָׁלוֹם, וּמְיוּחָד בְּמַהוּתוֹ וְעַצְמוּתוֹ יִתְבָּרֵךְ בְּתַכְלִית הַיִּחוּד,

nevertheless, the illumination of the supernal will in one’s soul is different in terms of its contraction and expansion.

אַף־עַל־פִּי־כֵן, הַהֶאָרָה, אֵינָהּ שָׁוָה בִּבְחִינַת צִמְצוּם וְהִתְפַּשְּׁטוּת,

In the performance of a mitzvah, this illumination is in a state of “contraction”; one’s attachment to G-d’s will is not readily apparent. In the kavanah, however, the illumination is in a state of “expansion” and revelation in one’s soul: here, clearly, one’s thought and intellect are attached to G-d.

In the note which follows, the Alter Rebbe traces the difference between mitzvot and their kavanah to their source in the supernal sefirot.

Each sefirah consists of an or, a “light,” and a keli, a vessel or receptacle for the or. The kelim of the sefirot have a well-defined character: one is chochmah, another binah, and so forth. The orot, however, are G-dly energy, “simple” in the sense that they are devoid of definition, unlimited, and not restricted to any specific character.

Restated, this means that kelim are “contracted” and limited, while orot are “expanded” and unconfined—the very traits that differentiate between mitzvot and their kavanah.

It is also so explained in Etz Chaim that kavanah in mitzvot and in Torah study is on the level of “light,” while the “body” i.e., performance of the mitzvot, is the level and category of “vessels.”

וּכְמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב בְּﬠֵץ חַיִּים, שֶׁכַּוָּונַת הַמִּצְוֹת וְתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה הִיא בְּמַדְרֵגַת אוֹר, וְגוּף הַמִּצְוֹת הֵן מַדְרֵגוֹת וּבְחִינוֹת כֵּלִים,

These [vessels] represent “contraction,” for it is through contraction of the light that the vessels came into being,

שֶׁהֵם בְּחִינַת צִמְצוּם, שֶׁﬠַל יְדֵי צִמְצוּם הָאוֹר נִתְִהַוּוּ הַכֵּלִים,

as is known to the students of the Kabbalah.

כַּיָּדוּﬠַ לְיוֹדְﬠֵי חֵן:

Similarly, the difference between mitzvot and their kavanah is one of contraction and expansion respectively, as explained above.

The Alter Rebbe now expands the analogy of body and soul to mitzvot and kavanah. He states that just as in the analogy, all existence is classified into four categories, with two of them (mineral and vegetable) belonging in turn to the broader category of “body-beings” and two (animal and man) to the broader category of “soul-beings” so it is also with regard to mitzvot and kavanah.

The Alter Rebbe now resumes the thought intercepted by the above note.

They, too (the mitzvot and their kavanah), are differentiated into four levels.

וְנֶחְלֶקֶת גַּם כֵּן לְאַרְבַּע מַדְרֵגוֹת.

For the “body” of the mitzvot themselves comprises two levels, namely, mitzvot consisting of real action (as opposed to speech, which is merely “regarded as action”),

כִּי גוּף הַמִּצְוֹת עַצְמָן מַמָּשׁ – הֵן ב' מַדְרֵגוֹת, שֶׁהֵן, מִצְוֹת מַעֲשִׂיּוֹת מַמָּשׁ

and mitzvot performed with speech and thought, such as Torah study, reciting the Shema, praying, saying the Blessing After Meals, and other blessings. Both these levels—(a) action and (b) thought and speech—are subdivisions of the category of the “body” of mitzvot.

וּמִצְוֹת הַתְּלוּיוֹת בְּדִבּוּר וּמַחֲשָׁבָה, כְּמוֹ תַּלְמוּד תּוֹרָה וּקְרִיאַת שְׁמַע וּתְפִלָּה וּבִרְכַּת הַמָּזוֹן וּשְׁאָר בְּרָכוֹת;

The kavanah of mitzvot, i.e., one’s intention to attach oneself to G-d by performing the mitzvah, this (the kavanah) being like a soul for the body of the mitzvah,

וְכַוָּונַת הַמִּצְוֹת לְדָבְקָה בּוֹ יִתְבָּרֵךְ, שֶׁהִיא – כִּנְשָׁמָה לַגּוּף,

is likewise divided into two levels—corresponding to the two levels of soul found in material bodies, namely (a) in animals and (b) in man.

נֶחְלֶקֶת גַּם כֵּן לִשְׁתֵּי מַדְרֵגוֹת, כְּמוֹ שְׁתֵּי מַדְרֵגוֹת הַנְּשָׁמָה שֶׁהֵן בַּגּוּף הַחוּמְרִי, שֶׁהֵן: חַי וּמְדַבֵּר.