The heart is a life-sustaining muscle in our chests, beating and pulsing until our final breath. But that heart also becomes a metaphor to describe so much of the human endeavor. A person of great determination shows “so much heart.” When we are encouraged we “take heart.” When we are discouraged, we “lose heart.” Even the word courage comes from the Latin “cor” – which means “heart.” When we deeply know something, we know it “in our hearts.” When we are committed, it is with “all our heart,” wholeheartedly. Our hearts melt, our hearts freeze, our hearts are heavy, our hearts are light, our hearts break, our hearts mend, our hearts open.
The Hebrew language also puts לב Lev, heart at the center of countless human qualities. In the Bible, lev is used metaphorically far more frequently than any other term, over 800 times. If you scan the prayer book, lev is invoked constantly: purify our hearts, the meditations of my heart, unify our hearts, love God with all your heart. And we should note that In Jewish tradition, the heart is not only the seat of emotions. The heart is understood to represent the seat of consciousness and understanding, and the center of will and decision as well. The heart is the center of our being, the true “heart of the matter.”
The Torah scroll itself is encoded with heart. Three weeks from now, on Simchat Torah, we will unroll the entire scroll around our sanctuary, and read the very end, followed by the very beginning. (And if you have never experienced this, you should come!) The last word of the Torah is Yisrael, the people of Israel. The first word is Breishit, in the beginning. The final letter of the Torah is ל Lamed. The first letter of the Torah is ב Bet. When the end and beginning of the Torah are linked, we read the word Lev, heart.
Our congregation’s name is Kehillat Lev Shalem, the Congregation of a Full Heart. We take our name from one of the prayers we chanted earlier this morning: “May we all form one fellowship to fulfill your will with a full heart.”
In the Jewish mystical tradition, the Tree of Life, the symbolic map of reality that guides our spiritual lives, is made up of locations known as sefirot, and pathways linking all of these locations. There are ten sefirot, representing the ten digits, and 22 pathways, representing the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The numbers and the letters taken together represent all the possible combinations and permutations of reality, the whole shebang. Taken together, they add up to 32, the numerical value of lamed-bet, lev – heart.
Well, this is my 32nd High Holy Days with all of you here at Kehillat Lev Shalem, the Congregation of a Full Heart. I couldn’t resist reflecting on this theme with you today, especially as we prepare ourselves and our hearts to be moved by the sound of the shofar. How are we to tend to our hearts?
The Torah is certainly clear about what we are not to do: we are not to become like Pharaoh, and harden our hearts. Pharaoh is, of course, the Torah’s poster child for hard-heartedness. Pharaoh is the ruler of Mitzrayim. On the map, Mitzrayim is the ancient Hebrew name for Egypt. Mitzrayim means perhaps “The Narrows”, since all of Egypt was built along the narrow corridor of fertile land through which the mighty Nile flows. But on the spiritual and symbolic level, our tradition has always understood Mitzrayim to mean the narrow and constricted place within ourselves, the place where the fortified ego and arrogance reign, the place where others are put into bondage to serve our own ends, the place of the crushed spirit, the place where hearts become closed and hard. Pharaoh rules that land.
Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s palace, but despite his royal training Moses is unable to harden his own heart. Moses’ heart remains open to the suffering of others. He is forced to flee to the wilderness, where, as we know, he encounters the voice of God at the burning bush. That voice says to Moses: “I see the plight of my people under their oppressive taskmasters; I hear their cry of anguish; indeed, I feel and know their suffering.” The Torah asserts that the heart of God herself, who birthed our infinite mind-boggling creation, is open, vulnerable, responsive to the cries of her children. The universe was not assembled by machine – it was birthed out of love. If we are made in the image of that God, then that must mean that in order to realize our divine potential we too must keep our hearts open, to hear, to see, to feel, to love, to care about the world around us.
The Torah tells us that explicitly and exactly in chapter 10 of Deuteronomy: “Cut away, therefore, the thickening, the sheath about your hearts, and stiffen your necks no more. For YHVH your God shows no favor and takes no bribe, but rather upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing food and clothing – you too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim.”
If we are to realize our God-like potential, we must cut away the thickening around our hearts. We must be honest and true, acting with caring, befriending and loving even the stranger. We are to practice empathy for the powerless, for the needy, for the crushed spirits we encounter, by remembering that we too have suffered, we too have been trapped in Mitzrayim, the land of tight constriction. We too have been repeatedly rescued by others who were able to keep their hearts open so that they could feel and know the pain of others.
And I am speaking not only of the dramatic encounter, but of the everyday, moment-by-moment practice of keeping our hearts available and open to our closest companions, human and animal, vegetable and mineral. All of it.
Of course, if we make ourselves vulnerable to the world and to one another in this way, we risk our hearts getting bruised, even broken. We do need to be careful, mindful of when we might need to retreat for a while, collect ourselves, and let ourselves heal. But then, when we are ready, having sorted through our previous experiences and having adjusted our course, we must venture out again, despite the risks. For that is the only way to the Promised Land – to leave the constrained and constricted place, and – trembling and tender and alive – to let our hearts expand to meet the world.
For only in that vulnerable and open state can our hearts also soar. If we open our hearts to the world we open ourselves to sorrow, to loss, to anguish. But if we can keep our hearts open through these emotions, then we also open ourselves to joy, to wonder, and to exultation. So which will it be this New Year? A closed heart, numb but protected from sorrow, or an open heart, weeping and rejoicing, at times simultaneously, throbbing with life?
Our sages suggest that the sound of the shofar should remind us of a human cry, so that our hearts might break open and awaken into compassion when we hear its call. Following a year that has battered most of us, we have staggered back into our tent just for this purpose: to once again open our hearts to life; to renew our commitment to live our lives fully; to reawaken our wonder and our simple joy. As you hear the shofar, may you feel your heart shedding its armor and beating the rhythm of life.