I recently read a fascinating essay where the author describes an encounter she had with a couple in the streets of Jerusalem. The couple described themselves as “chilonim” (secular). Rather than concur with their self-definition, the author started gently probing, in a bid to help them realize how Jewishly oriented they truly were.

“You live in Israel, don’t you,” she challenged them. “You’re honest, decent, moral people who honor your parents,We all need to improve celebrate a Passover Seder, circumcise your sons and contribute to the betterment of Israeli society. You’re not “secular”; you are fine, upstanding Jews.”

It’s a subtle but important point to make. We all need to improve. We all have failings that hold us back, but that’s not a reason to label ourselves in relation to our Judaism.

However, I wonder, just because someone honors their parents, does that mean they’re following a Jewish way of life? Maybe they attend synagogue once a year out of habit rather than belief. They might be honest in business, but are they acting that way for G‑d, or out of a sense of personal morality? Maybe this couple’s self-definition wasn’t really so inaccurate?

For self, or for G‑d?

There is a fascinating insight of the Rebbe on the mitzvah of shikchah, which is discussed in this week’s parshah. There are certain biblically mandated gifts that we are commanded to give as charity. Ten percent of our income is donated for ma’aser, we leave pe’ah (the corners of our fields) unharvested for paupers, and anything we forget in the field by accident, shikcha, we are commanded to leave behind for those who are less fortunate.

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a bundle behind, you may not go back for it. It must be left for the convert, the orphan and the widow, so that G‑d your L‑rd will bless you in everything you do. (Deuteronomy 24:19)

The commentator Rashi wonders: why will G‑d bless you when you didn’t mean to leave the bundle of grain behind in the first place? You were forgetful, but not necessarily generous. He points out that you don’t need to have a perfect intention in order to fulfill a mitzvah. Even if someone drops money that is subsequently found and kept by a poor person, the mitzvah of giving charity has been fulfilled.

The Rebbe questions: How is this a mitzvah? You didn’t mean to give charity. You had no positive intentions. Quite possibly you were even angry or disappointed when you realized your mistake. Where’s the merit in your actions?

The Rebbe points out that it is an axiom of Chassidic belief that, deep down, every Jew truly wants to do the right thing and serve G‑d. So, the person who dropped money actually wished to give tzedakah. Those who respectHow is this a mitzvah? their parents are moral, ethical beings who, subconsciously perhaps, love serving G‑d. That’s the real you and the real Jew.

You wish to be good. You want to give charity. You’d love to sit and learn Torah all day. You like people, want to keep Shabbat and dream of living a good Jewish life. You just don’t know it (yet).

Whatever good you do—even the inadvertent, unanticipated actions that in retrospect turn out for the best—comes from the soul and, because in your heart of hearts you love G‑d and dedicate yourself to mitzvahs, G‑d will “bless you in everything you do.”