Eikev: Covered Heart, Stiff Neck

August 9, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Posted in Eikev | 1 Comment

Some common Biblical Hebrew metaphors seem straightforward to English-speakers, some need only a little explanation, and others seem bizarre. The name of this week’s Torah portion, Eikev, is an easy metaphor. The word means “on the heels of”, and makes sense to English-speakers in a fairly literal translation of the first sentence of the portion:

It will happen, on the heels of your listening to these laws, that if you keep and perform them, then God, your god, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 7:12)

Later in this Torah portion, we get the following sentence:

You must circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and you must not stiffen your neck again. Because God, He is your god, the god of gods ... (Deuteronomy 10:16-17)

levav = heart; the seat of thoughts and feelings, the mind

oref = nape, neck, back of the neck

Most English speakers think that stiff-necked means stubborn, and that is certainly part of its meaning in Biblical Hebrew. But in the Torah kasheh-oref (“stiff of neck”) and related phrases have a more specific meaning.

The first time the Torah refers to a stiff neck is right after God has given Moses the two tablets of commandments on Mount Sinai.  God tells Moses that the people below have made and bowed down to a golden calf, and calls them stiff-necked— meaning that they are stubbornly reverting to the old-time religion of Egypt.

Necks are called stiff or hard 19 times in the Torah, and 18 of those references either accuse or warn descendants of the children of Israel regarding their attitude toward God.  Being stiff-necked is associated with deliberately disobeying God— by worshiping other Gods, or by refusing to listen to God, or by refusing to follow God’s laws.

The Torah also has nine references to turning one’s neck to someone. Since the word oref really means the back of the neck, it is not surprising that this Hebrew metaphor covers two English metaphors: turning your back on someone, and turning tail to flee. Perhaps stiff-necked people are those who stubbornly turn their backs on God.

The only time the Torah uses the concept of a stiff neck a different way is in Proverbs 29:1:  Reprimands make a man stiff-necked; suddenly he cracks, and there is no healing.  (If only Moses had known that, it might have been easier for him to lead the Israelites across the wilderness.)

In this week’s Torah portion, when Moses tells the people not to stiffen their necks again, he means that they must not  deliberately turn away from their own religion again.  But what does he mean when he says “You must circumcise the foreskin of your heart“?

The Hebrew word levav does mean the organ that pumps blood, but this literal meaning leaves us with a horrific image of open-heart surgery. In the Torah and Talmud, the heart is also the seat of our stream of consciousness, all our thoughts and feelings. In many Torah passages, a more accurate translation of levav would be “mind”. I usually prefer to keep the original metaphors in my translations from the Torah, but if I retranslate Deuteronomy 10:16 with the words levav (heart) and oref (back of the neck) changed into their implied meanings, here is what we get:

You must circumcise the foreskin of your mind, and you must not stubbornly reject [God] again. 

Then what does it mean to circumcise the foreskin of your mind? The 15th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno wrote that the Torah is asking us to remove the covering over our intelligence, by examining our thinking for errors that lead to false beliefs. Eliminating these errors of thought will remove the barrier between our minds and God.

The 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch proposed a harsher interpretation: our thoughts and desires are unruly, so we must gain mastery over them. Once we subordinate our hearts/minds to our real selves, we become able to subordinate ourselves to God.

Circumcision is certainly removing a covering (though what remains is rarely associated with intelligence, today). When Moses describes himself at the burning bush as someone with uncircumcised lips, he implies that an insensitive covering, literal or metaphorical, prevents him from speaking well.

I suppose circumcision can also be seen as a form of discipline; the ancient Israelites did view uncircumcised Greeks and Romans as licentious. But in the Torah, literal circumcision is primarily a sign of the covenant between the Israelites and God, the covenant first ratified by Abraham. Thus circumcisizing your heart is also a metaphor for making a covenant with God–not just with your actions, but with your inner mind.

It is hard enough to obey the rules laid down by your religion (particularly if you are an orthodox Jew facing a list of 613 commandments).  But is it even possible to cut away anything unholy from your innermost thoughts and feelings?

All too often, when we examine our own minds and judge the contents, we reprimand ourselves harshly.  Then we react to our own harshness either by rebelling against our superegos and stiffening our necks (perhaps like the man in the verse from Proverbs above); or by wrapping ourselves in suffocating layers of blame and depression, and sometimes covering that over with denial. It is as if, having peeled back the foreskin over our minds and peeked inside, we then add layer upon layer of extra skin, so we will not see our true inner minds again.

How can we uncover our hidden feelings and beliefs, and leave our minds open and able to grow? I think we need to relax our necks first. We need to be flexible, willing to turn around, to reconsider. Then, if we approach our inner selves either dispassionately or with kindness, instead of with reprimand and blame, we can choose to turn toward the good and the holy. Once we are turning toward God, instead of stubbornly turning our backs on God, then the coverings that have kept us out of a covenant with the divine might not even need to be cut. The barriers might softly fall away.

Or maybe that’s a woman’s point of view, and men need to tame their testosterone drive with a metaphorical circumcision of their hearts!  What do you think?

Va-etchannan: Extreme Love

August 1, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Posted in Eikev, Va-etchannan | 2 Comments

You shall love God, your god, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your uttermost. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:5)

ve-ahavta = And you shall love

levavekha = your heart, your mind, your stream of consciousness

nafshekha = your soul, your vitality, your life, your appetite, your desire

me-odekha = your uttermost, your muchness, your might, your means

The verse commanding us to love God, which appears in this week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan (“And I implored”), is also a key moment in every evening and morning Jewish prayer. For Jews serious about prayer, it can be a daunting commandment.

What does it mean to love God?  And how can we do it?

When the book of Deuteronomy was written down, perhaps in the 7th century B.C.E., the word ahavah, “love”, often meant loyalty. When treaties called for vassals to love their overlords with all their heart, they meant that the vassals must be totally loyal.

This definition of love answers the question “How can love be commanded?” Our emotions may not be under our own control, but we can freely choose, over and over again, to act with loyalty. Similarly, we can choose to be committed to someone, even when our desires pull us in another direction.

The concept of love as commitment and loyalty continued in the Talmud, which tells the story of Rabbi Akiva’s execution by the Roman government, after his conviction for teaching Torah. Akiva interpreted nafshekha as “your life”, and said at his execution that he was fulfilling the commandment to love God with all his life.

Today it is still possible to be loyal and committed to your religion, and in one sense this counts as loving God.

Ideas about the meaning of the word  ahavah, “love”,  changed over the centuries, and Torah commentary on this verse changed accordingly. Medieval thinkers saw love as an overwhelming state of mind. In the 11th century, Bachya ibn Pakuda wrote in Duties of the Heart: “What does the love of God consist of? The soul’s complete surrender of its own accord to the Creator in order to cleave to His supernal light…” In this state of mind, there would be “no place for any other thought, sending forth not even one of the limbs of its body on any other service but that drawn to be His will; loosening the tongue but to make mention of Him and praise Him out of love of Him and longing for Him.”

This kind of obsessive passion sometimes happens to a lover who is falling in love, or to a mother who is enraptured by her baby.  The condition is temporary, and does not require any deliberate choice. Can obsessive passion for God be commanded? Can we choose to enter into that state?

In the 12th century, Moshe ben Maimon, known as Maimonides or Rambam, wrote that passion for God can be prompted by deliberately paying attention to the wonders of God’s creation. “When man contemplates His works and His wonderful, great creatures and fathoms through them His inestimable and boundless wisdom, he will immediately love, and praise, and exalt, and will be seized by a keen longing passion to know Him …” (Yesodei ha-Torah).  Judging by another of his books, Maimonides thought contemplation would lead to an obsession as great as the one Pakuda described. “What is suitable love? To love God with an exceedingly great and very intense love until one’s soul is knit with the love of God and one is constantly obsessed by it. As in a state of love-sickness, in which the mind cannot be diverted from the beloved, the love is constantly obsessed by his love, lying down or rising up, eating or drinking.” (Teshuva).

The Chassidic movement among eastern European Jews in the 18th century also placed a high value on passionate attachment to God, but its rabbis emphasized the feeling of longing for union with God. The holy Chassids are described as desiring God with an intensity like the sexual desire of a young adult who has fallen in love–hard. Yet the yearning for God seems to be enough, even if the lover of God occasionally gets distracted, and even if the lover never feels as if the union with God is consummated.

Building on the Chassidic tradition, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger wrote in his 1808 work Sfaat Emet (as translated by Arthur Green): “This means one should want nothing but God. ‘With all your soul’—‘with every single soul-breath that God has created in you.’ And the meaning of ‘be-khol levavekha’ is not ‘with all your heart,’ as most people interpret it. But rather, we need to become aware that each feeling we have is only the life force that comes from God. … Even if it is hard for us to imagine fulfilling ‘with all your heart,’ we should still have that willful longing to reach it at all times. For it is through this longing that gates open in the human heart.”

Later in the 19th century, the rationalist Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explained the verse this way: “All your thoughts and emotions, all your wishes and aspirations, and all your possessions shall be regarded by you only as means for attaining closeness to God, for bringing God near to you; this shall be their sole value to you.” Selfish desires, he continued, should be sacrificed for the sake of the relationship with God.

Although self-sacrifice acquired a bad reputation in the 1960’s, today many people believe that marriages are successful when both partners are willing to sacrifice selfish desires for the sake of the marriage. Can this view of love as being unselfish and giving the other person priority be applied to God?

When I say or read the commandment to love God with all my heart/mind and all my desire/life and all my uttermost means, my immediate thought is always that it’s too hard.  I just don’t have the inner means to do it–whether I define love as loyalty and commitment, as passionate obsession, as extreme longing, or as self-sacrifice.

Yet I have loved a few human beings in all of those ways. Perhaps if I believed in an anthropomorphic god, I would be able to follow the commandment to love God.  Since I do not, I am hoping that partial love of God is better than none at all.  So instead of loving God as I love a human being, I am committed to Torah and a moral life. I have established a habit of remembering to contemplate the wonders of the universe, as Maimonides recommends, and a habit of moving my feeling-soul by singing prayers. I keep longing and seeking to go farther on this journey. I am taking better care of my real needs, but I am prepared to sacrifice any apparent needs to serve a greater good. That is my all my uttermost, all I can do to love God.

Eikev: With Heart and Throat

August 14, 2011 at 11:39 am | Posted in Eikev | Leave a comment

What does God want from us?  Moses asks and answers that question, as old as human history, in this week’s Torah portion, Eikev (“following on the heels of”).  And the answer still means something, even for those of us who define God as a state of being rather than as the omnipotent ruler of the universe.

And now, Israel, what does God, your god, request from you?  Nothing but to be in awe of God, your god; to walk in all God’s paths; and to love God; and to serve God, your god, with all your levav and all your nefesh; to observe the commands and decrees of God that I am commanding you today for your own good.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 10:12-13)

levav = heart; seat of thoughts and feelings and understanding; inner self, consciousness

nefesh = throat; appetite; the soul that animates the body; life force

Long-time readers of this blog are already acquainted with the Hebrew words levav and nefesh.  Both words refer to parts of human anatomy that are metaphors for aspects of being human.  But why does God require service with all our “heart” AND all our “throat”—both in last week’s Torah portion (check out Deuteronomy 6:5), and again this week?

In modern terms, we might translate the phrase as “with all your mind and all your body”.  So the two verses translated above mean we must direct all our conscious feelings toward both awe and love of God, and make all our conscious decisions so they follow God’s paths.  Furthermore, our conscious feelings and decisions must become so habitual that our bodies instinctively react that way.  And it takes both our minds and our bodies to keep on observing (paying attention to, guarding) the rules Moses laid out for going God’s way.

If you define God as the omnipotent ruler of the universe, obviously doing all this is “for your own good”.  We get more rewards and fewer punishments when we go along with human authorities, so it seems reasonable that the same would be true for going along with a divine authority.  When we provide what the boss wants from us, we get more of what we want from the boss.

Do you define God as the omnipotent ruler of the universe?  That definition is certainly implied in the book of Deuteronomy.  And the Talmud, commenting on the passage above, claims that God rules everything except our own feelings.  “Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except the awe/fear of Heaven.”  (Talmud, Berakhot 33b)

Jewish liturgy applies this definition of God in its repeated use of the phrase “melech ha-olam”, literally “king of the world/universe/eternity”, in formal blessings and prayers.  And many people today, in several different religions, view God as the omnipotent ruler of the universe.

I do not.  Maybe it’s because I grew up in a family of athiests, but the only rulers I know of are human decision-makers.  I don’t even view “nature” as the ruler of the universe, since “nature” doesn’t make decisions; it just is.

Yet the two verses I translate above still speak to me, even though in my own “heart” I use the slippery word “God” to name a mystery that my rational mind can describe as a state of being, and my intuitive mind identifies as the source and goal of my yearning.

I encourage and cultivate my yearning for “God” in ways that Jews have cultivated their awe and love of “God” ever since the fall of the second temple, almost 2,000 years ago:  through Torah study, through prayer, and through noticing the wonders of this world (from the bug crawling on a leaf to my husband smiling at me).  All three practices lead to feeling awe, love, and gratitude for … what?  Why not call it “God”, in English or Hebrew?

Okay, so I’m working on two of God’s requests in this week’s Torah portion:  feeling awe and feeling love.  What about walking in all God’s paths, and serving God with all my levav and all my nefesh, and following all the rules passed on by Moses?

I can’t prove it, but I believe all this studying, praying, and noticing I’m doing does lead to making better decisions (in my levav) and creating better habits (in my nefesh), so I walk more often on the right paths, and better serve the spirit of God within me.  I don’t follow exactly the same set of rules Moses gives in the Torah (though I do pay attention to them, and think about them, when I study Torah).  But I work on following, as best I can, an informal set of rules for behavior that my own branch of Judaism agrees upon.  And I like myself more, so perhaps all these practices are indeed for my own good.

What God wants from me is, apparently, the same as what I want from my orientation toward God.

Am I just being self-centered?  I don’t know, but I take comfort in the double name of God that first appears in the book of Deuteronomy.  In the verses above I translate the double name as “God, your god”, but the Hebrew actually uses two different words for “God”.  The first one is the four-letter name of God, spelled with the Hebrew equivalents of Y-H-V-H and related to the verb “to be”.  Jews refer to it as Hashem, “The Name”, and treat it as sacred.

The second word appears sometimes in Deuteronomy as Eloheynu, “our god”, sometimes as Eloheykhem, “your god” (the god of all of you being addressed), and sometimes, including the verses above, as  Eloheykha, “your god” (the god of you, one person in particular).  The implication is that the God of all be-ing is also a god that we, you, and I have a relationship with.

What does God want from you?  Relationship, connection, direction.  You can deduce it from the verses quoted above.  What do you want from God?  Relationship, connection, direction?

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