Sometimes I act like a human robot. I brush my teeth without thought, do housework mindlessly, and, worst of all, I do mitzvot by rote, without feeling, without putting my heart and soul into each one.

The Book of Vayikra (Leviticus) goes into great detail about the animal sacrifices offered in the Temple. Everything from the age and sex of the animal, to how and where it was slaughtered, how the blood was sprinkled, and which parts could be eaten and by who, is covered in these pages. Each sacrifice was meaningful; there were peace offerings, guilt offerings, daily offerings, offerings of thanksgiving, and the additional offerings on Shabbat and holidays, among others.

While the many physical details of the sacrifices were scrupulously observed, did the people, as I do, sometimes lose sight of the “heart and soul” of the offering? Does the mitzvah count if you scrupulously perform the physical details but without feeling?

Conversely, is it ever enough to offer up only your heart and soul, or do you have to also physically perform the mitzvah?

Sometimes the Action Is Enough ...

Imagine this scenario: It’s December and you see your neighbor’s children walking to school in windbreakers. You know the father lost his job, and your heart aches for those cold children. Is feeling bad a substitute for getting them warm coats? Of course not. All the empathy in the world won’t warm those children. And what if you don’t like these neighbors? If you keep those feelings to yourself and buy coats for the kids, albeit grudgingly, have you performed the mitzvah?

Yes! Your inner feelings are secondary; what matters is the action.

And Sometimes It Isn’t ...

There are some mitzvahs that demand more than autopilot. King David says, “You do not desire that I bring a sacrifice, nor do You wish for a burnt-offering. A contrite spirit is the sacrifice for G‑d.”1

In other words, in Temple times, merely bringing a sin offering wasn’t enough. It was an outward action that was supposed to go hand in hand with the inner feelings of regret and return.

And this process hasn’t changed since the days of the Temple. If you’ve said or done something to hurt someone, offering an insincere apology isn’t going to heal the relationship. It won’t even heal you. Like the offering, the apology must go hand in hand with genuine regret.

The First Step

It is natural to go through the motions at times, fulfilling the letter of the law without the heart and soul. But mitzvahs are the way we connect to G‑d. Each one we perform is like a precious thread running between us. The more we do, the more threads we make, until we have a sturdy rope that keeps us constantly tethered. Robots can’t do that, because these threads are woven with feelings.

So, how can we put our hearts and souls into every mitzvah we do?

Thankfully, G‑d gave us the answer in one of His first commandments. It’s a commandment that’s all heart and soul; no physical action is required. It will turn off the inner robot and turn on the feelings and sincerity needed to spark that connection.

It’s the mitzvah to believe in G‑d. This is the first of the Ten Commandments, “I am the L‑rd Your G‑d,” by which we are instructed to believe in His existence. This is echoed by Maimonides in the first of his 13 Principles of Faith.

This non-physical, actionless mitzvah can be seen as the “pre-mitzvah mitzvah.” Take a moment—before performing any mitzvah—to reaffirm your belief in G‑d. Remind yourself Who gave you that mitzvah and Who you’re doing it for. This moment can’t be done like a robot because it’s all about what’s happening in your heart, soul, and feelings. It transforms a robot into a human, and thereby transforms a mundane action into a spiritually connected experience.

Here is an analogy:

Imagine it’s your father’s birthday, and you have budgeted $100 for a gift for him. You can pull an assortment of bills totaling $100 out of your wallet, shove them in a plain envelope, and write “Happy Birthday” on the envelope. Or you can spend $100 on two tickets, one for each of you, to a baseball game where his favorite team is playing.

In the first case, you hand over an envelope. In the second case, you spend the day together doing something he loves. It’s a $100 gift in either case. But clearly the tickets are a more heartfelt gift because you’ve shown you care about the recipient and what he would enjoy.

Similarly, we can perform a mitzvah by “stuffing our actions in an envelope,” or we can invest those same actions with care and feeling.

Same actions, but what a difference!