You shall not ... put a stumbling block before a blind person, and you shall fear your G–d; I am Hashem. Rashi: Before someone who is blind in that particular matter you shall not give advice that is unfair to him. Don’t say to him, “sell your field and buy a donkey,” when your intention is to deceive him and take it from him.”So often we measure religiosity by externals, both in ourselves and others. Here the Torah warns us that this is not the true measure of divine service.
And you shall fear your G–d. Rashi: Because it is not given to human beings to know whether his intention was for good or evil. He could therefore evade [responsibility] and say “I intended it for his benefit.” Therefore it says concerning it, “you shall fear your G–d,” Who knows your thoughts. Likewise, of every matter that is given over to the heart of the person who does the action and no one else could possibly know [his true intentions], it states, “fear your G–d.”
For example, it’s true that someone who talks in Shul lacks fear of Hashem, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the one who doesn’t talk does fear Hashem. He may be quiet for other reasons—he is a shy person by nature, he wants people to think well of him, and so on.
Likewise, many frum Jews feel that since in general they adhere to the basics of Halacha, this is sufficient, and their divine service is acceptable. What they don’t realize is that in fact Hashem has very little to do with motivating their observance, which (on the revealed level) is driven almost exclusively by other motives.
So although the external actions are important (and I’m certainly not suggesting that they be abandoned, G–d forbid), they often tell us little about the person. The true measure is in the person’s inner self, in his thoughts and feelings, and this is largely between him and Hashem, for “One does not know what is in the heart of one’s fellow” (Pesachim 54b).
The same holds true for the way that the Jew views himself. Let’s say that on some basic level, he wants to serve Hashem. The question that he needs to ask himself is: Is it for real? Is he truly G–d-fearing?
Well, that begs the question: What does it mean to fear Hashem? It means that the person is always conscious that Hashem is watching, and careful to follow His will, even in private.
So is the person G–d-fearing? Well, what does he do in his spare time, when he is alone? Will he waste that time, or use it to learn Torah, or do something positive and constructive for others? What does he think about? Does he naturally think constructive, or holy thoughts? Does he control himself when he desires to think an inappropriate thought, whether about something forbidden, or about a fellow Jew?
The same applies concerning the person and his fellow. When he helps others, he needs to ask himself: What is going through his mind and heart? Does he truly desire to help them, out of ahavas Yisrael (love of a fellow Jew), or is he doing it primarily for other motives—if not deceitful motives, at least selfish ones?
If the answer to some of these questions is in the negative, the person has to realize that despite his technical observance, he has a long way to go on the road to truly serving Hashem. He has to davven to Hashem to help him on this path.
Purifying and rectifying one’s inner thoughts and feelings is what true service of Hashem is all about. The external actions simply provide the necessary framework for accomplishing this goal. To quote the Arizal: “A Mitzvah without the proper intention is like a body without a soul.” For a Jew who is basically religious, the “body” is there—the observance of Halacha. The really hard work, which sadly seems to be widely neglected, is that of infusing the body with a “soul,” the holy feelings that a Jew should feel—true love and fear of Hashem, love of Torah, and love of one’s fellow Jew. And this inner emotional change is accomplished through Avodas HaTefillah, “The service of prayer” (Taanis 2a).