Follow your heart. I Love you with all my heart. Have a heart. Wounded heart. Heartache. Heartbroken. Disheartened. It is clear that of all organs in the body, the heart is the accepted symbol of emotion.
But this metaphor is not only employed by our English vernacular. The Torah itself promotes this symbolism. “V’yadata ha’yom v’hashivosa el levavecha, v’ram levavecha,know today and place it in your heart, v’lo sasuru acharei levavchem, do not stray after your hearts.” This month we are saying in the tfilla of L’Dovid – “lo yirah libi,my heart will not fear, chazak v’yametz libecha, strengthen your heart.” Eleventh century Spanish philosopher, Rabbeinu Bachya Ibn Paquda wrote his magnum opus, Chovos Ha’Levavos, Duties of the Heart. He didn’t call it Duties of the Brain or Duties of the Soul, but rather Duties of the Heart.
Why do we associate emotion with the heart? Why not the liver, the lungs, the kidneys or another organ? Why not the brain, the epicenter of our animated lives?
Understandably, the Greeks concluded that the heart was the center of emotion because they observed the heart rate; the pulse is directly affected by the way people feel. When people get excited their hearts race, when they are sad their hearts feel heavy, and when they are scared their hearts pound in their chests.
The truth is, though we have advanced scientifically and now know that emotion is produced in the brain, not the heart, the heart nevertheless is directly correlated with emotion, and emotion has a great impact on the heart. A cardiologist introduced me to the diagnostic term “stress cardiomyopathy.” A patient sometimes presents with the same symptoms of a heart attack in which the heart muscle can’t pump blood to the body strongly enough. They run every test under the sun and there is no indication of a heart attack. In those circumstances, the cause of the problem, one that is real and dangerous and could result in heart disease, is most often trauma, loss, grief or emotional pain. Hence, the other, literal name for stress cardiomyopathy – broken heart syndrome.
“Lo yavo amoni u’moavi bi’kehal Hashem.” We are instructed not to marry an Ammonite or Moabite even if they undergo conversion. Why not? Why specifically these two nations and, if they convert, aren’t they now Jewish, not Ammonite or Moabite? The Torah itself provides the answer. Moav cannot enter because they commissioned Bilam to curse us and therefore displayed great cruelty. Ammon, too, treated us callously and coldheartedly. “Al davar asher lo kidmu eschem ba’lechem u’vamayim ba’derech b’tzeischem mi’mitzrayim, because they did not greet you with bread and water on the road when you were leaving Egypt.”
We were exhausted, spent, and in need. We were hungry and tired and worn down. What was the reaction of the people of Ammon? Nothing. Indifference. They refused to show us compassion and there were unmoved by our plight. The Torah therefore instructs us that we cannot risk absorbing this behavior, this insensitivity, and this cruelty into our nation.
In fact, we, the Jewish people, are to be distinguished for exactly the opposite characteristic. We are to be recognized for having the biggest, most generous, benevolent and kind hearts. The Gemara in Beitza 32b (“leiv” coincidentally) teaches that Jews are “rachamanim b’nei rachamanim, compassionate the children of compassionate.” Kindness, feeling, and heart are genetically programmed into our spiritual DNA. Consider for a moment – It isn’t a coincidence that when there is a human crisis or catastrophe anywhere in the world, it is often the State of Israel that is the first to respond and the earliest to arrive on the scene to help.
We are to be rachamanim b’nei rachamanim and that is the theme of our Parsha. In many mitzvos we see a goal of cultivating kindness, sensitivity, and heart. Our Parsha teaches the law of sending the mother bird away before taking the eggs she was guarding. The mitzvah of Shiluach Ha’Kein is to preserve our heart, to retain our sensitivity and compassion, even to a bird. Elsewhere, our Parsha introduces us to the mitzvah of hashavas aveida, returning a lost object. It ends with the mandate – “lo suchal l’hisaleim, you shall not be capable of ignoring it.” Be sensitive, have a heart, recognize that someone lost something and is likely anxious to get it back.
To have a healthy Jewish heart means to care, to notice, to feel, to be sensitive, to emote. Symptoms of Jewish heart disease are insensitivity, indifference, and callousness. There is a malady we are all vulnerable to and many are suffering from and in fact each one of us will apologize for it in just a short time from now. On Yom Kippur we will close the list of al cheits by saying al cheit she’chatanu l’fanecha b’simhon leivav. Rashi explains that simhon leivav means otem haleiv, the clogging of the heart. Just as cholesterol clogs the physical arteries and contributes to heart disease, so too apathy, indifference, and callousness clog the spiritual arteries and contributes to hardheartedness.
I am truly worried that as life as become increasingly complicated and the demands for our time, energy and resources have increased, we have lost the space and focus necessary to pause and feel. We are suffering from simhon leivav, timtum ha’leiv, our hearts are clogged up. Life is moving so quickly, we are constantly on the move, running, driving, our phone is ringing, our texts are buzzing, our email is beeping, the news is blaring and we don’t have time or the ability to stop and process what we have seen, or read, or watched. We live at warp speed and that means we are increasingly losing the capacity to be moved and to feel.
The information age coupled with the social media age has made us practically numb. In the past, how often were we exposed to emotional articles? Yes, maybe a few times a year someone bothered to cut out an interesting article and send it to you. But today our inboxes are filled with links to articles we must read, videos we must watch, speeches we must hear, all before lunchtime. The overflow of emotional information leaves us numb and emotionless. We click through one article after another. We see images and maye videos of murdered news people while eating breakfast and sipping coffee. We read Facebook posts of someone dying from cancer over lunch and keep chewing. We see pictures of our friend’s newborn baby on Facebook minutes after she is born and we continue to do work or multitask instead of pausing to be excited by the miracle of childbirth. It all happens so fast and disappears so quickly we have become numb, timtum ha’leiv.
When is the last time you felt true sympathy and empathy for another? When did you last feel overwhelmed with joy for a friend? I don’t mean you liked their status update or sent a smiley face text. I mean real joy for another. Are you sensitive to the pain and suffering of others? A pervasive culture of sarcasm and cynicism has led to a sense that nothing impresses me, nothing surprises me, nothing saddens me, nothing excites me, and nothing moves me.
When is the last time you saw or read something so great you got goose bumps? When is the last time you saw or read something that literally moved you to tears?
In his religious diary Tzav V’ziruz, written in the 1930’s, the Piaseczner Rebbe, Rav Kalonymous Kalman Shapira who died in the Warsaw Ghetto wrote so presciently of the importance of maintaining our ability to feel and stimulating our feelings in healthy ways:
The human soul relishes sensation, not only if it is a pleasant feeling but for the very experience of stimulation. Sooner sadness or some deep pain rather than the boredom of non-stimulation. People will watch distressing scenes and listen to heartrending stories just to get stimulation. Such is human nature and a need of the soul just like its other needs and natures. So he who is clever will fill this need with passionate prayer and Torah learning. But the soul whose divine service is without emotion will have to find its stimulation elsewhere. It will be either driven to cheap, even forbidden sensation or will become emotionally ill from a lack of stimulation.
The Piaseczner Rebbe identifies a very real human need – the need to feel, to be stimulated, to have a heart that is beating and pulsating. That is why some ride roller coasters and others watch sappy movies. It’s why we read and listen to people who anger us instead of ignoring them completely. We crave feeling and we have a choice. We can satisfy that craving with healthy, productive, meaningful feelings or we will be tempted to fill the appetite for feeling with dark, self-destructive, dangerous stimulation.
As we spend the month of Elul seeking to improve our spiritual health and to be shalem, let’s unclog our spiritual arteries by making space in our lives for our hearts to beat and pulsate. Let’s let the emotions and feelings run through our spiritual veins. Let’s take some time to work on our hearts. Let’s be moved by the suffering of others. Let’s find the time and space to be in awe of something impressive, to be moved by something that touches us, to get goose bumps from something that excites us, to be happy for good that happens to us and most importantly, to feel for those around us.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.