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Torah 'Rests' Upon Our Hearts, Not Always in It
These are difficult, challenging and trying times for the people of Israel. I write these words on Day 14 of Israel's war against Hezbollah. I pray that soon the battles will be over; that children will again be able to sleep safely in their bedrooms and not in bomb shelters; that fathers will be reunited with their families, and husbands with their brides, and that soldiers will again be students.
I always look forward to this week's Torah portion, Vaetchanan, because few other portions have so many verses that cry out, darshuni -- teach, preach, talk about me. Our portion begins with Moses pleading with god to let him enter the Land of Israel with the people, but God once more refuses his request.
Moses then orders the children of Israel to pay attention, and follow the laws given by God in order to be worthy of the land they are about to receive.
Here we will become "a nation of priests and a holy people, a light to the nations." The portion reaches its climax as the covenant at Sinai and the Ten Commandments are recalled, and then Moses speaks the words of the Shema, the central credo of our tradition.
First and Last
Throughout our history, the Shema -- the biblical verse "Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone," and the rest of the paragraph have had a special spiritual significance. It is one of the first prayers we learn as children, and is in our tradition the last words we utter in our life.
Sometimes, when something is so familiar to us, we miss the ambiguity or tension in a verse. One such ambiguity: "Set these words which I command you this day upon your heart."
Most contemporary editions translate this as "in your heart," which is the obvious sense of the text. But the Hebrew is not bi' levavekha, "in" your heart, but al levavekah, "upon" your heart.
Does this hold some hidden meaning?
Dr. Norman Lamm, in his wonderful volume The Shema: Spirituality and Law in Judaism, calls our attention to two wonderful teachings.
One is from Rabbi Zadok Hakohen of Lublin. Why do the Torah's words lie "on" our heart and not "in" our heart? Unfortunately, not all of us are, or can be spiritual giants, according to the rabbi.
Not all of us can have the words of Torah occupy us all day long. Some of us -- even many of us -- spend our days with our hearts (aka, our minds) on other worldly thoughts. So even if the words of Torah cannot be our sole and constant occupation, even if its words cannot always penetrate our very hearts, let us at least hope that the Torah's words rest "on" our hearts.
A second wonderful teaching comes from Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. He taught that even if you feel that your heart is shut tight and the words of Torah do not penetrate it, do not despair. Just let the words pile up upon your heart. Be confident that in due time your heart will open up, and when it does, inspiration will come. Then, all that has been gathered in, lying patiently upon your heart, will tumble into your newly opened heart.
May the words of Torah -- the dreams and ideals of our people, which often rest "upon" our hearts, through our hard work and efforts -- enter "into" our hearts, and may they be transformed, now and always, into good deeds of compassion, and into words of hope, comfort and strength.
This Shabbat, especially, may we say these words: Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may those who love you prosper! Let there be peace in your homes, and safety within your borders. For the sake of my people, my friends, I pray you find peace.
For the sake of the house of the Eternal our God, I will seek your good.
Rabbi David Straus is religious leader of Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood.