On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: The Heart Of The Matter - Parashat Eikev

Rabbi Rick Jacob’s reflection on Parashah Eikev, teaches about how imperative it is that as we encounter the natural ups and downs of life, we really try to remove the layers and get to the heart of the matter. He emphasizes that we must remain open to honest emotion, compassion, love and even vulnerability.

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On The Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us a little bit about the weekly Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Eikev. And he asks, how can we take in the world in the most openhearted way?

[Rabbi RIck Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Eikev from the book of Deuteronomy. And like a lot of our parshiyots, sometimes there's a verse that just jumps out. And this one particular verse jumps out with just a lot of curiosity. And I think it may do the same for you. The verse is Deuteronomy chapter 10, verse 16, which says in the English translation, "Circumcised, therefore, the foreskin of your heart and no longer be stubborn cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more." The second is a little looser translation. And when we think about that, it's a overwhelming idea that we know that circumcision in the Jewish tradition is not about circumcising one's heart. We know that. But this phrase doesn't occur just once in the book of Deuteronomy. It occurs in the book of Leviticus, in Jeremiah, and two separate places-- three separate places-- and in the book of Ezekiel.

And I think for the purpose of this podcast is what is it talking about? I know in my own family I had the experience of a family member who had open heart surgery. And I think for those who had that experience that the thickening about your heart sounds like a very medical kind of thing to increase heart health. We also know that in maybe the history of literature and even of theater, heart is that thing that's essential. So you remember the show Damn Yankees? "You got to have heart," right? That's the essential thing in playing baseball and living a Jewish life of meaning and courage. And it seems like the book of Deuteronomy is telling us something about our hearts. And what does it mean to, in a sense, cut away that thickening-- that thing that keeps our heart from feeling fully, from being the place where we take in the world that we don't just have a mind but, oh, come on, have a heart. And some of the commentators try to dig in and say, what is actually going on? The commentator ibn Ezra says that the idea of circumcising the foreskin of your heart means to purify your heart so that it will understand the truth. Sforno, another great medieval commentator, says that what it means is to get rid of the prejudices with which your intelligence will be afflicted. So taking in a sense the layers of protection away from your heart is a way of opening yourself-- opening yourself to experience to people, to ideas, and to the fullness of life. I love these teachings. I also love that for a lot of us, we learn to guard our heart that we feel that makes us very vulnerable to live with an open heart. And part of contemporary Jewish spirituality is trying to get the thickening of our heart to be removed, to be able to open ourselves and to take away that stiffness of stubbornness that the translations sometimes refer to. I also have to say that the book of Deuteronomy loves the word "heart." It appears numerous times. We have, of course, last week, the V'ahavta. You shall love the Lord your god with all of your heart, right? That is just one of those things when it comes to living religious life fully.

Now, one of the most compelling examples of this is a really wonderful book called "Kitchen Table Wisdom" by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen. And she tells a story. She's a physician. And she has been leading a spiritual retreat for people trying to regain their health. It's the organization called Commonweal. In the book "Kitchen Table Wisdom" has a story about one particular patient that she worked with. His name is Yitzak, and he is a Holocaust survivor. He was liberated from a concentration camp in 1945, came to America, worked hard, stayed hard, and was a respected physicist. And when he first met Dr. Remen, she recalls that his words and his accent endeared him to her because he had a Slavic accent. And it reminded her of some of the older members of her own family. Well, she tells the story about when they were in retreat mode, which is a lot of sitting quietly, a lot of meditation and reflection. And there's a lot of, as she describes it, touching, embracing, hugging, pats of love and support. And at first, Yitzak said to Dr. Remen, he said, "what's all this huggy-huggy? What is this love the strangers?" And he was really put off by all of that kind of interpersonal warmth and even physical expressions of affection. And he kind of stayed at a distance. And then after four days of this intense meditation and reflection and openness in conversation, Yitzak described having a very intense experience. It seemed with his eyes closed there was a deep pinkish light that seep through. And he described it as being very tender. It startled him and caused him to really awaken. And when he told everyone about it, Dr. Remen recalls, he said it was like being inside a big rose-- a very touching because his last name meant "little rose" in Polish. In the moment, however, he became frightened-- aware that the light had a direction. And he had the sense that it was pouring out of his chest like a big hemorrhage. It seemed to be coming from his heart. It made him feel very vulnerable. So in conclusion, Dr. Remen says, the retreat staff dealt with his discomfort in all kinds of ways. They didn't try to fix it or to tell him to let go. They just let him on his own time ease into this opening of the heart. And the opening that he described was one of transformation. I don't know exactly if Leviticus was describing what Yitzak experienced. But I think what he did describe was a clearing away of layers that guarded his heart. Now, as a Holocaust survivor, we could understand easily why his heart was so guarded. And I think for all of us, we have our own stories of trauma and pain, which might keep us from opening our hearts. But when we do, all the possibility of a life more deeply lived is before us.

The last teaching I want to share is a teaching from my teacher, Marty Linsky, who, along with his writing colleague, Ron Heifetz-- I have a series of books that they published on leadership. And both taught for a number of years at the Kennedy School at Harvard. And in one essay, they write about leading with an open heart. And a lot of times we think of leaders as actually people who don't lead with an open heart. They lead with a strong arm and with a really clear vision. But Marty and Ron, in particular, want to single out the whole way in which we may otherwise build up defenses. So the teaching is as follows, they write, "After years of raising questions and accumulating scars, most of us develop a sense of defenses to protect ourselves. We buy into the common myth that you can't survive a demanding leadership role without developing, as we say, a thick skin. But that diminishes us because it squeezes the juice out of our soul. We lose our capacity for innocence, curiosity, and compassion. In a sense, our hearts close-- our innocence turns into cynicism, our curiosity turns into arrogance, and our compassion turns into callousness. We dress these up, of course, because we don't want to see ourselves-- and certainly don't want others to see us-- as cynical, arrogant, and callous. We dress cynicism up and call it realism. So now we are not cynical-- we're realistic. We're not arrogant, but we do have authoritative knowledge. And we dress up and cloak our callousness by calling it the thick skin of wisdom." And here is the essence. "But to stay alive in our spirit, in our heart, requires the courage to keep our hearts open. It requires what Roman Catholics call a sacred heart or what in the Jewish tradition is called an open heart. We can talk about the practical reasons why it's important to keep an open heart-- and there are practical reasons. But chiefly it is important for your own spirit and identity."

So wherever you are in listening to this podcast, probably right in the middle of our summer or towards the end of it, wherever we are in our personal lives or our professional lives, what are all those things that would close our hearts? And then along comes Deuteronomy, chapter 10, verse 16, telling us, "Cut away, therefore, the thickness about your hearts." How do we cut that away? How do we do what Yitzak did, which is to see that heart not as our sign of weakness, but that way we have of taking in the world in the most deep and profound ways? And how do we cultivate that openheartedness-- someone who sees the world with a generosity of spirit, an openness and openhearted to the people and the issues and the possibilities around them? But wherever you are in your life, wherever you are in the work of your own spiritual path, I would say that for all of us, let's do everything in our capacity to peel away those layers of protection and to discover that heart, that beating essence of who we are, because for this spiritual life, well, you got to have heart.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On The Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend.

For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events and more, visit ReformJudaism.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident. On The Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, L'heiroat!