Do Not Harden Your Heart: A D'Var Torah for Parshat Re'eh
“v’al cheit shechatanu lifanecha b’imutz halev –
For the sin we have sinned against You through hardness of heart."
On Yom Kippur, the sin of hardening our hearts appears second in the long list of confessional phrases we intone over and over. This sin also shows up in this week's Torah portion, Re'eh, which marks the beginning of Elul—the Hebrew month of reflection preceding the High Holy Days. But unlike the Vidui liturgy, which offers no context or details of this spiritual cardiac condition, Re'eh ties this hardened internal state to our external relationships with those less powerful than ourselves: the poor and needy.
In the sixth aliyah of Re'eh, Devarim 15:7-8, the Torah instructs:
"...do not harden your heart,
nor shut your hand from your poor brother;
but you shall surely open your hand wide to him,
and shall surely lend him sufficient for his need..."
The structure of the text here is noteworthy, offering two negative and two positive commands, each seemingly related to the other through chiastic form (ABBA). The second negative command not to close our hand to the poor is paralleled by the words that immediately follow, demanding that we open our hand wide. The combination of these oppositional images emphasizes that when we respond to the poor with our hands—in other words, with physical actions—we must give willingly and generously; our hands must be open.
But the first negative command and the final positive command in this structure are not, at first glance, a fitting pair. The negative command not to harden our heart relates to the realms of feeling and emotion, leading us to anticipate that the positive command counterpart would do the same. However, providing someone with what they need—the subject of the positive command—relates to our physical actions, and thus we have an apparent mismatch.
When Shabbat Parshat Re'eh concludes, we will have 40 days until Yom Kippur. Perhaps, if we take up Re'eh's charge to open our hearts and hands to those around us in need, we will both deepen our own teshuvah process of returning to the best of who we can be, and create a more sustainable and equalized existence for those around us as well.
“u’teshuvah, u’tefilah, u’tzedakah maavirin et roah hagzerah –
but repentance, prayer, and tzedakah temper judgment's severe decree."
1 Mishnah Torah, MatanotAniyim 7:3