It helps to begin with some background information. In parshas Emor, the Torah presents many halachos which pertain to the Yomim Tovim. As we would expect, that material includes a section on Sukkos. That section, in turn, includes the halachos of the "arba minim" -- the "Four Species" -- i.e., the esrog and the items that we take with it.
The Torah presents these mitzvos with the following pasuk [Vayikra, 23: 40]: "U'lekach'tem la'chem ba'yom ha'rishon... " [ArtScroll: "You shall take ... on the first day "]. This sounds like a straightfoward message, which ends further discussion of the pasuk. But Chazal-in Medrash Tanchuma on this pasuk--see the pasuk's words as conveying another level of meaning. Reacting to the pasuk's mention of the "first day", the Medrash asks: Why do you speak of taking the arba minim on the first day? In reality, the day on which we begin taking the arba minim is the fifteenth day [of the month of Tishrei].
If the Torah referred to the initial day in which we take the arba minim as "the fifteenth day" [of Tishrei], it would be providing additional information -- namely, when do we begin the mitzva. By contrast, referring to the initial day as "the first day" tells us nothing new. For we already know that the "first day" on which we take the arba minim is the "first day". Why, then, did the Torah prefer to use the less informative expression? [Note: The Medrash is fully aware of the difference between the first day of the mitzva and the first day of the month. The medrash is simply using the superficial inconsistency between the Torah's reference to the "first" day and the "fifteenth" day as a trampoline to catapult us into a new perspective.]
What is the new perspective that Chazal are proposing? As you may recall from past years, the days between Yom Kippur and Sukkos are extremely busy. People are working on their Sukka, selecting arba minim, doing the Igud on the lulav, and preparing special food and clothing for the Yom Tov. There are only four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkos. Consequently, the long list of things to be done faces a tight deadline -- the arrival of the Sukkos holiday.
Chazal experienced these acute time pressures. They also noted an unexpected phenomenon. People were so busy during these four days that they lack the time to do aveiros [to sin]! This much diminished level of aveiros continued until the first day of Sukkos.
Further, because people have been too busy to commit sins during that time period, another special feature also surfaced. No aveiros worth talking about means that the days between Yom Kippur and Sukkos have a special kedusha. For all intents and purposes, during these four days there are no sins to record. This unique time period comes to an end with the arrival of Sukkos. On that day, there are sins to record, and they are duly recorded. Thus the "first day" on which the Medrash has focused is a "first day" that we have not yet mentioned: namely, the first day "le'chesh'bon avonos". That is, the first day of Sukkos is also the first day on which HaShem resumes reckoning our accounts with Him.
Ahd Kan (so far) with necessary background information. We move now to the text of the Sfas Emes on Ha'azinu, 5634, paragraph 3.
The Sfas Emes begins by referring to the Medrash cited above and by citing a question that the Taz had asked about it. The Taz pointed out that -- as we would expect -- the Medrash assumes a hierarchy of values. That is, implicitly the Medrash considers some things to be more important than other things. The problem is that the Taz found the hierarchy with which the Medrash works unacceptable. Thus the Medrash assumes that the four days of preparing the mitzvos -- e.g., arba minim -- are "yoseir gedolim" [on a higher level] than the actual mitzva of taking the arba minim. The Taz asked: How could that be? Apparently he found the idea unthinkable, and left it at that.
By contrast, the Sfas Emes finds it eminently thinkable that hachonos [preparation] for a mitzva could pack more "ko'ach ve'hatzolo" [power and rescue] than the mitzva itself. [The Sfas Emes's use of the word "hatzolo" ("rescue") is noteworthy. "Rescue" implies having previously been captured by enemies, or swept away by overwhelming forces of nature ... The Sfas Emes's mention of "hatzolo" implies that he knew of such states - from personal experience and/or as Gerer Rebbe.)
The Sfas Emes explains what he has in mind when he tells us that the hachonos for a mitzva are more powerful than the mitzva itself. Preparing oneself to perform the mitzva involves getting into a proper intellectual and emotional state. Achieving that state may take a long time -- the Sfas Emes actually says "le'olam" [forever]. By contrast, a person can perform the mitzva itself in brief, finite time. That is: 1, 2, 3, ve'gomar'nu [and it's done]!
The Sfas Emes presents another reason why getting to a state of readiness for doing a mitzva can be more important than actually doing the mitzva itself. He asks: who can do a mitzva properly [ke'mish'pata]? The answer to his rhetorical question is: "very few". By contrast, preparing oneself to perform mitzvos with focus and joy is within our grasp -- once we have been alerted to the importance of hachonos. This ma'amar sounds that alert, loud and clear. Finally, the Sfas Emes quotes a pasuk in Devarim (4:6) which he reads as saying that performing mitzvos is contingent upon first giving the mitzvos our prior intellectual and emotional attention. In the words of the pasuk: " U'she'martem ve'as'isem..." ArtScroll : "You shall safeguard and you shall perform" [the mitzvos].
Good. In fact, excellent! The Sfas Emes has just given us an insight to help us in our Avoda, an insight that is as powerful as it is radical. But just because the doctrine is so bold and innovative, we must be careful to examine its validity. In particular, did the ideas of the Sfas Emes resonate with the religious life of his contemporaries (and their descendents) to a degree that they took him as their Rebbe? (What a dumb question; but it had to be asked). The many thousands of chassidim who followed the Sfas Emes as their Rebbe attest to the doctrine's validity.