Parashat Ki Tavo begins by teaching us the Mitzvah of Bikurim. One must bring the first fruit of the Shiv’at HaMinim to the Beit HaMikdash and give them to the Kohein. Another part of the Mitzvah of Bikurim is the Mikra Bikurim, the recitation of the paragraph beginning with the words, “Arami Oveid Avi,” “An Aramean sought to destroyed my father” (Devarim 26:5), well-known for its prominence in the Hagadah. This paragraph is a brief summary of Jewish history, starting with Lavan’s attempt to destroy Ya’akov, and ending with Hashem bringing Bnei Yisrael to Eretz Yisrael.
Rashi comments on the words “Arami Oveid Avi” that Lavan tried to destroy Ya’akov when he chased after him. Because Lavan planned to do this, Hashem considered it as if he actually did it. “Umot HaOlam, Chosheiv Lahem HaKadosh Baruch Hu Machshavah Ra’ah KeMa’aseh,” “For the nations of the world, Hashem considers an evil thought as if it were an action” (Rashi ad loc. s.v. Arami Oveid Avi). This does not appear fair! How is it possible that Hashem weighs a sinful intention the same as He does a sinful action for anyone?
The Gemara (Kidushin 40a) addresses this very issue. Rav Asi states that if someone intends to do a Mitzvah, but is prevented from doing it, he is considered as if he has performed that Mitzvah. However, the same does not hold true regarding Aveirot. Only when the action of the Aveirah is performed is one considered to have sinned.
We can learn two valuable lessons from this Gemara. First, that Hashem is lenient and understanding when it comes to Aveirot. Even if someone intends to do an Aveirah, but does not turn his intentions into reality, he is not held responsible for his intentions.
On the flipside, we can learn that when it comes to the performance of Mitzvot, effort counts. Hashem appreciates our effort to perform His Mitzvot, even if they are not carried out to completion.
This is implied by the often-used phrase “Avodat Hashem.” Why do we prefer to use that phrase rather than “Shemirat HaMitzvot?” The phrase “Avodat Hashem” connotes the toil and effort that is put into Mitzvot, even if they are not completed. We should strive to perform the Mitzvot to the best of our ability and to keep in mind that even when we are not perfect, our effort is appreciated. The aforementioned Rashi regarding equating the intention to sin with sinning refers only to the most severe Aveirot such as murder. This is the exception rather than the rule.