Sunday, August 12, 2012

Spiritual Cardiac Conditions?

(originally written for and published by Rabbis for Human Rights North America)

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:

" 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.
Maimonides' interpretation of the phrase from the final positive command at issue—"sufficient for his need"—helps us makes this apparent mismatch a match. He comments: "If [the poor person] has no clothing, he should be provided clothing; if he has no house furniture, it should be procured for him.... Even if an impoverished person is used to riding while a servant is running in front of him, a riding horse should be procured for him and a servant to run in front."1 The plain reading of Maimonides' remarks is that we are to go to whatever lengths necessary to provide for the particular needs of each poor person. Our physical actions should not be limited to a "one-size-fits-all" solution. But Maimonides' approach goes further still: Maimonides is pushing us to go beyond our often dehumanized view of "the poor" as a broad category and instead to see each individual as a real person with unique and varying needs. In this way, Maimonides enables us to see how the prohibition against hardening one's heart and the positive command to provide everyone with what is sufficient for their needs complement each other: they are a combined call for a humanized awareness, free of desensitization and stereotyping, underlying any action we take to help those in need.

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

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