SERMON:  Parashat 'Ekev, August 3, 2018

Our Torah Portion this week includes this strange but evocative image:

Cut away, therefore, the foreskin from around your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  --Deuteronomy 10: 16-19

What does it mean’ cut away the thickening from around your hearts? And how might that connect to loving the strangers among us?

First, let’s remember what the Israelites had gone through: plague, hunger, attacks from hostile tribes, fires, and tribal struggles. Those experiences no doubt were traumatizing, and just to survive every day, people have to shut off their emotions, or see the stranger as a danger just waiting to attack us. When we are overwhelmed, everything begins to seem like a threat.

I think of today’s refugees, particularly those from Syria living in makeshift camps all over southern Europe and Lebanon. While love for children and family remain fierce in these camps, and people do extraordinary things, many also shut down, shut off their connections to others. Many begin to blame groups of people for their hardship. In the face of pain, complexity can be lost. The result can be extremism.

But today, as we look toward the month of Elul and the High Holy Days, I want to consider what we in this shul have experienced that have caused our hearts to callous. To be part of any community is to be disappointed and occasionally hurt. This community has had some significant struggles and disappointments in the past few years. Exciting projects have been rejected. Hopes and visions have not been realized. People’s faith in the institution has been eroded. In such circumstances, it is easy to build up a callous around our hearts, distance ourselves from the community, and even step away. Anyone who has worked in community has had to face this.

To survive loss, to survive life’s hardships, we all, over time, build up a little callous on our hearts, just as the soles of our feet respond to wandering in the desert or in the mountains, and our hands respond to working the soil or playing the violin, our heart develops its own protection to help heal from the million tiny cracks and the few great heartbreaks life has inflicted upon it.
Those callous are often necessary for survival.

Paradoxically, those very callouses we need to survive also, over time, keep us from fully living. In our desire to protect ourselves, we often hurt ourselves the most. When our hearts close off, we become incapable of letting in love, or experience new friendships, of trusting and laughing fully with others. We lose our ability to build a better future together.

For some, the hardened heart leads to anger, anger that can be exploited by dangerous demagogues, whipped up to full hate and violence. It is easier to blame others, to blame ‘those people’ than it is to take the risk of opening our hearts despite the risks. The greatest wound to the heart is shutting it off. The risk of pain is not nearly as great as the risk of not feeling.

Our Torah Portion also retells the story of the breaking of the tablets and the making of new ones, and putting them in the ark. The question arises: are only the new tablets in the Ark? What happened to the pieces of the old tabliets? The Talmud says that both the broken pieces of the first tablets and the new tablets were put in the ark. From this, our tradition derives some very beautiful ideas about the human condition.

The 16th century Kabbalistic work, Reshit Chochmah, taught that the ark was like the human heart, with chambers that are broken, and chambers that are whole, and that both are required to make us fully human.

Or as Dan Nichols song says, “I’m perfect the way I am and a little broken, too.”

And the Chassidim teach that “there is nothing so full as a broken heart”.

Or to quote Rabbi Leonard Cohen, ‘there is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.

And as a rabbi, I want to mention another kind of thickening of the heart: hyperrationalist know-it-all atheism that views as superstitions and obsolete any beliefs in the divine, the sense of wonder, radical amazement, and mystery. These people often accuse people of faith of clinging to certainty, of needing certainty in the face of modernity and its doubts. There is some truth to that, of course, but I have to say that I have met few people of faith as certain and sure of its self as an Atheist. Atheism seems way too sure of itself for me. I tend to think the trick is in finding a balance between faith and skepticism, in living in the tension and liminal space between the two. Like Iris Dement, I think sometimes humility and skepticism requires that we ‘let the mystery be.” Certainty is a foreskin around the heart.
Indeed, in Jeremiah 4:3–4, an uncircumcised heart is compared to hard, fallow soil that cannot be cultivated because it has not been plowed:
Break up your fallow ground, and do not sow among thorns. Circumcise yourselves to the LORD and remove the foreskins of your heart. (Jeremiah 4:3–4)
As we approach the High Holy Days, let’s try take the risk of take some of the callous layers that have build up around our hearts, to use our free will to choose empathy over callousness, connection over the safety of withdrawal so that we might feel life’s greatest joy: loving others and being loved.
Only when we find a way to keep our hearts open, can we find a way through the Sea of Reeds that our own injuries form around us and come home to a life in the promised land that flows with the milk and honey of human connection.