Before the holiday of Yom Kippur, I was approached by an individual who preferred to go out into the mountains to connect with G‑d. “The synagogue is too restrictive,” he told me. “I feel more spiritual and free to connect with my creator in the expansiveness of the outdoors.”

Over the years, I’ve met dozens of Jewish people who declined to perform the mitzvah of donning tefillin with the explanation, “I’m a Jew in my heart. What need is there for me to perform this physical act?”

The common thread is that if Judaism is meant to be an expression of one’s spirituality and personal connection with G‑d, what need is there for the performance of physical acts? Yet the vast majority of laws in the Torah are tied to the physical performance of a mitzvah.

The Midrash tells us that our forefathers kept the Torah in its entirety prior to its being given on Mount Sinai. Our sages ask: If so, what was uniquely special about the giving of the Torah if it was already being practiced?

The answer can be found within the first word of the very first commandment, “I (anochi) am the L‑rd your G‑d, who took you out of the land of Egypt.”

The Talmud teaches us that the word anochi is an acronym for ana nafshi ketavit yehavit, “I (G‑d) have put Myself into the Torah.” The Divine revelations that our forefathers previously experienced were merely a manifestation of G‑d, G‑d in His communicative state of being, not in His essential state of being. When the Jewish people received the Torah at Mount Sinai, it enabled them to connect with the very essence of G‑d invested in the Torah and mitzvot.

When our forefathers performed mitzvot prior to the giving of the Torah, their connection with G‑d was spiritually and meditatively driven, while the physical acts were merely an expression of that spiritual connection. Thus these acts were only symbolically holy, not essentially holy.

When a person breaks out in dance because of something positive that has happened in his life, the act of dancing is not the cause of jubilation, but rather the means of expressing an inner state of joy. Likewise, Kabbalah relates how Jacob performed the mitzvah of tefillin through peeling sticks of wood to resemble tefillin straps. In that instance, the physical sticks were not intrinsically holy, but only a means to fulfil the spiritual significance of donning tefillin, namely submitting one’s mind, heart and actions to the Almighty.

This idea is also found in the narrative of Abraham's hospitality to the three angels who appeared as men. Abraham interrupted his audience with G‑d to attend to his guests. The Talmud learns from here that hospitality is greater than receiving the Divine Presence. Now, if these guests were really angels, then Abraham did not actually perform true hospitality, since these “men” did not consume any of the food and drink that was prepared for them. Is it feasible that G‑d expected Abraham to leave the presence of the Almighty to accomplish nothing?!

Yet since this episode occurred before the giving of Torah, when the service of G‑d was predominantly spiritual, the intention and thoughtfulness of Abraham meant everything. The fact that the food was not actually consumed was insignificant. The essential component of the mitzvah was how Abraham exerted himself to prepare for his guests with love and affection. Therefore, at that time, Abraham fulfilled the mitzvah of hospitality in its entirety.

Today the exact opposite is true. If one were invite someone to his home with the intention of feeding him with love and care, but the person were to leave without consuming any food and would remain hungry, the mitzvah of hospitality would not be achieved (true, G‑d would give us credit for our efforts, but the deed would remain undone).

The same is true regarding all the mitzvot in the Torah. If one were to meditate on the significance of donning tefillin but did not actually put on tefillin, nothing has been accomplished.

The Talmud states, “Greater is one who has been commanded and fulfills the mitzvot, than one not commanded who fulfills them.” On the surface it would seem that one who is not commanded to do something but fulfills it of his own accord displays a greater degree of devotion. Chassidut explains, however, that although this person is truly devoted, his relationship with G‑d is still somewhat limited, because it stems from his or her self. The fulfillment of a mitzvah commanded by G‑d has an infinite element to it, which enables a person to connect to the essence of G‑d while elevating the physical object to the realm of holiness.

The giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai had a twofold effect. Through G‑d investing His intrinsic self into the Torah and mitzvot, it became possible to connect with the essence of G‑d through the fulfillment of His mitzvot. Furthermore, it enabled man to elevate ordinary physical objects and transform them into objects of holiness.

When Jacob performed the mitzvah of tefillin before the Torah was given, the sticks assumed no holiness of their own. After the Torah was given, not only were tefillin a tool to enable one to fulfill a mitzvah, they acquired intrinsic holiness. The astounding revolution resulting from the giving of the Torah is that not only can one be a Jew at heart, but that one has the capacity to imbue holiness into the world at large by drawing down the very essence of G‑d.