In the Torah portion of Seitzei we learn:1 “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading grain.” Concerning this precept, the Alter Rebbe notes2 that one does not transgress this commandment if he muzzles oxen without intending to sin.

The Alter Rebbe concludes: “And so too in all similar circumstances,” i.e., one does not transgress if there is absolutely no intention of committing a sin.

With regard to positive precepts, there is a dispute as to whether their performance must be accompanied by intent3 — whether the person must consciously desire to perform the commandment. According to the majority of codifiers,4 there are numerous commandments that need not be performed with intent. Moreover, with regard to many mitzvos, a person fulfills his obligation even when forced to perform the mitzvah !

We thus see a cardinal difference between performing a commandment and transgressing: performing a mitzvah can be accomplished even without intent, while transgression must be accompanied by intent.

Why is this so? Since the purpose of a mitzvah is to sanctify an unsanctified object and attach it to G‑d, while transgressing merely diminishes the sanctity of an unholy object, making it even more distant from G‑dliness, it would seem that the former would be more difficult to achieve than the latter.

Why is it, then, that in order to debase an object there must be intent, while elevating it to holiness can be accomplished without intent?

A Jew’s day begins by the recitation, immediately upon awakening, of the Modeh Ani prayer: “I thank to You, living and eternal King….” This prayer, as well as the general obligation that immediately upon awakening a Jew be “fierce as a leopard… in his desire to fulfill the will of his Father in Heaven,”5 binds a Jew to G‑d throughout the day, causing him to be continuously aware that he is in G‑d’s presence.

Consequently, even if a person were to perform a particular mitzvah without intent later in the day, the general intention to serve G‑d which he had at the start of the day suffices, inasmuch as it applies to all the good deeds the person will do during that day.6

The opposite, however, applies to transgressions: As long as a person does not specifically intend to transgress, he is not considered to have transgressed. For the person’s intent at the beginning of the day to serve G‑d nullifies any incorrect action performed without sinful intent.

However, the fact that a mitzvah need not be performed with intent while a transgression must have intent applies to all Jews — even those who fail to recite the Modeh Ani in the morning and lack the desire upon awakening to fulfill G‑d’s will.

Even if we were to say that the intent to perform one sin does not automatically carry over to the performance of others, and thus that each transgression requires individual intent, the question remains with regard to such a person’s performance of mitzvos : Having failed to recite Modeh Ani , etc., what enables him to successfully perform mitzvos while seemingly lacking any intent?

In truth, every Jew possesses an intrinsic desire within the depths of his soul to do good and bind himself to G‑d.7

Thus, whenever a Jew performs a mitzvah , even if it is without intent, in reality he is giving himself wholly to G‑d, not only dedicating his soul, but also his body, and those objects with which he performs the commandment, so that every fiber of his being and his portion of the physical world becomes elevated, attached and united with G‑d.

Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IV, pp. 1123-1130