OPEN HEART SURGERY
Rabbi David Walk
How scary is that title? But I guess appropriate, because many Jews find this season terrifying. And this year in Israel it's especially alarming because Israelis can't deal with three day yom tov. The concept of storing massive amounts of food in Israeli kitchens is beyond daunting for many in the Holy Land. Wouldn't you know that my first holiday back in Israel is a three day Rosh Hashanah? But that wasn't the scary I had in mind. I meant that we enter the Days of Awe with a bundle of guilt for the transgressions and omissions of the past year. Every year we must deal with this baggage, and, generally speaking, it doesn't get easier as the years go by. So, let's have a look at this week's Torah reading and, perhaps, get some constructive advice.
In our Torah reading we have a section called parshat ha'teshuva (Deuteronomy 30:1-11), in these eleven verses Moshe informs the Jewish nation that 'you will return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you this day, you and your children (verse 2).' This scenario is, of course, the prediction of a future redemption for the Jewish nation, because teshuva is compared to geula (Isaiah 44:22). It could refer to past events, like the Babylonian return or, perhaps, our own generation and the great return of millions of Jews to the modern Medina, or some still future event. The greatness of this return (teshuva) will be both spiritual and physical, as it says, 'Even if your exiles are at the end of the heavens, the Lord, your God, will gather you from there, and take you from there, and...bring you to the land which your forefathers possessed (verse 4-5).'
Now comes the tough part. 'And the Lord, your God, will circumcise your heart (verse 6).' Look, I have difficulties watching the action at a regular brit mila. How will I handle millions of minor 'procedures' on everyone's hearts? Obviously, this is a metaphor (Please, please, please!). But for what? In modern Hebrew, an aral lev (someone with an uncircumcised heart) is a villain or scoundrel. So, before God performs all these circumcisions, the nation is viewed as being in a negative position, and afterwards we are in a much better spiritual situation. What has God removed? Onkelos translates this act as the removal of tafshut libach, or the 'foolishness of the heart'. This seems to mean that the yetzer hara or evil inclination has been removed. It would seem that after this general teshuva back to God, God removes our inclination to ever sin again. Cool!
However, the Ohr Hachayim questions that scenario. He wonders why the circumcision happens after the total return to God, accompanied by a commitment to 'listen to God's voice in all that has been commanded.' So, what is the circumcision really adding to the already revolutionary situation of a complete physical and spiritual return to God. He answers that there are layers of repentance. First, there is the teshuva from the transgressions, then the circumcision triggers a new commitment to perform the positive mitzvot of the Torah. That's a fine response, but let's look at the question from another vantage point.
Probably the most famous example of teshuva in rabbinic literature is Reb Elazar ben Dordiya. I'd rather not go into his career of sin, but the curious can check the Talmud Avodah Zara 17a. I'm interested in the end of the story. After being informed that he will never be forgiven for his sins, he pleads with the mountains to pray for him, and they respond that they're too busy praying for themselves. The story goes on to relate that similar conversations take place with the heaven and earth, followed by the sun and stars. They're all too busy praying for themselves. At that point the lightbulb (in those days I guess it was a candle.) goes off in his head. Every creation is praying for themselves, and he concludes, 'The matter depends on me alone!' Our spiritual fate is in our own hands.
Now back to our metaphor. This isn't the first time this expression is used. Back in Ekev the Torah states, 'And God will circumcise the foreskin of your heart, so that the back of your neck will no longer be stiff (Deuteronomy 10:16).' Interesting medical advice. But Rav Aryeh Kaplan OB"M in his Living Torah translates it as, 'Remove the barriers from your heart, and do not remain stubborn anymore.' This is based on the Ibn Ezra, who explains that circumcision is a process of opening up something which had been closed and, therefore, distant from understanding the emet (truth). And what is this emet referred to by the Ibn Ezra? I believe that the truth we're missing is the same truth that Reb Elazar ben Dordiya discovered: It all depends on me!
This Saturday night we Ashkenazim begin reciting Selichot. One of the most moving lines towards the beginning of these penitential prayers is: k'dalim u'k'rashim (like the impoverished and indigent) we bang upon Your doors. We stand as emptyhanded petitioners before Almighty God. We feel bereft of both merit and power to change our situation. So, we beg God to help us climb out of this spiritual pit we've dug for ourselves. I believe that a transformation should take place during this penitential process. We must conclude that it really depends on me and my resolve to improve and make a better me.
Despair of improvement is a grand strategy of the yetzer hara. We must believe the inspirational verses we proclaim towards the end of Selichot, for example: If you seek your God, you'll be able to find Him if you're serious, looking for Him with your whole heart and soul (4:29). We're not poor and bereft when we discover that God is available to us through sincere repentance. We just need a little 'opening our heart' surgery.