Circumcising the Heart

Buried in the midst of this week’s Torah portion – Ekev – Moses gives the Children of Israel an instruction that has tripped me up, each time I read it. He is in the midst of recapping the highs and lows of their forty-year trek together. They are about to enter the land of Milk and Honey, now in sight.

Moses reminds B’nai Israel how God took care of them: giving them manna when they were hungry and quail when they complained a diet of manna alone was monotonous. He points out how God kept their feet blister free for four decades and remarks that their clothes never wore out. Moses also recalls how badly they behaved: making the Golden Calf while he was up on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments, provoking the Lord nearly every day of the journey, acting cowardly, not trusting in His Divine power. And lest they think they actually deserve entrance into the Promised Land, Moses also reminds them that God is only allowing them entrance because of His promise to their ancestors: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Woven through this recitation is a message that never strays: Love God, revere God, walk in God’s ways, keep His laws and commandments, inscribe them upon their hearts. In fact, the entire text of the V’ahavta derives from verses in this and last week’s portions. And in the midst of the exhortations to love God, Moses makes the pronouncement in question. Circumcise the foreskin of your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. Translators have modified it over time but that’s the literal translation. Circumcise the foreskin of your heart? With what?

Why? How? And Ow…

We are familiar with the rules and regs of a bris. In addition to Torah’s instruction to circumcise our sons on the eighth day of life, every one of us here recognizes the tableau: a mohel performs the ritual. A respected and beloved male is given the honor of sandek, a stand in for Elijah. The boy’s mother stands nearby, heart in her throat, her breath held. There are cries of mazel tov and the cry of the little one, too. Sealed into God’s covenant with Abraham, this new little being is given his Hebrew name. And then, of course there is food.

But there is no such rubric for circumcising the heart. We’re just supposed to cut away this unnecessary internal foreskin, the better to love God and by extension the better to follow his commandments. No ceremony, no cheers, no food. For years this sentence remained in the realm of metaphor. Every year it came around I would tell myself — Debra, remember to be more giving, more loving.

Or I would think, Been there doing this, I’m a good enough Jew, following the commandments that are meaningful to me — observing Shabbat and the holidays, going to services, cooking killer briskets and New York cheesecakes though not for the same meal.

But was that really opening my heart to God? We Jews don’t talk about this too much in synagogue. Or out. We recite the V’ahavata You shall love the Lord thy God with all they heart with all thy mind and with all thy soul. These words that I command you this day shall be IN your heart…But do they remain words on the page or do we actually strive to love God? Too often leave such God talk to non-Jews or to those we deem more observant than we are.

Not until my own heart was shattered by my mother’s estrangement from me following her cancer diagnosis two years ago, did I feel my heart begin to break free of a film I never realized was there. Family, friends and professionals could only bring me so far. To go the distance and heal, to rise to the emotional and spiritual growth demanded of me, I needed something bigger, something more powerful. I needed to know I was still in someone’s hands. God’s hands. At a time when the most primal love relationship any human being could have had been stretched to the breaking point, I needed a vessel to place the love and sorrow I felt. I needed to know that I was still worthy of a parent’s love. Over those long and difficult months I found myself turning to the parent who created us all.

In the course of recognizing that my heart had indeed been circumcised by this unexpected cataclysm, I began to heal. I began to make God a more everyday part of my life: reciting a prayer of thanks to Him for keeping my soul while I slept, trying to be aware of the words written on the mezuzah scroll affixed to the door when I left for the day and came home in the evening. I had never shied from talking about God or Jewish ritual and mitzvot with my children, but I began to share with them occasional insights and connections that I chose to believe were God’s hands shaping my life. When their lives faltered I offered a mother’s comfort and also tried to help them step back and see their lives from a broader perspective. Today’s setback might just be the springboard for a future success; God might have something bigger and better in mind for them.

Is it possible to be a twenty-first century intellect and also invite God into one’s heart? Each of us has to find our own answer to that question. Perhaps the title of this week’s Torah portion may point the way. As I mentioned when I began, it is called Ekev. For this week’s purposes, Ekev means IF or this will come on the heels of. Because Ekev is the Hebrew word for heel. The word Ekev is also the root of the name of our Patriarach Jacob, Yaacov, the second-born twin who emerged from his mother’s womb holding on to the heel of his brother Esau.

As you remember, Yaakov was asleep in a field the night before he was to meet his brother Esau after decades of estrangement. The last time they saw each other Jacob had stolen his older brother’s birthright and then hied it out of town, all at their mother’s instruction. As Jacob sleeps, he wrestles all night with a man. And this man, unable to best Jacob in the struggle, subdues him by wrenching his hip. The stranger (some have said it was an Angel of God, others say it was Esau, and others say Jacob was wrestling with his own demons and guilt) gives Jacob a new name – Israel, the one who struggles with God.

As Jacob struggled with this mysterious man, I have struggled with the mysterious command to circumcise my heart. I have wrestled with myself as my own heart was being circumcised through searing and difficult circumstances. I limp from within, knowing that my mother, at this moment, continues to write me out of her life. The experience has changed me forever, yet I would like to think changed me for the better. I am less stiff-necked, less arrogant. Daily I learn to practice forgiveness; daily I call upon God to guide me through, to love me, as I strive to love Him.

I’ve wondered why God formed our beings and then instructed us to remove coverings from our most vital organs. Why create something just to demand its perfecting after the fact? Perhaps the reason is this: the Jewish people’s relationship with God is a covenantal one, a partnership. In any meaningful relationship both parties have to make a commitment to one another. God has committed to the Jewish people for all time. The Torah is His symbol of commitment. By asking us to circumcise our sons, and in today’s parsha, our hearts, God demands that we put some skin in the game, too. Today, that phrase is a popular metaphor. At the inception of our identity as the Jewish people, putting skin in the game was, and continues to be, our real and very tangible commitment, binding us to God, and to one another, for all time.

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