Once a year at summer camp, the entire camp would divide into four teams. We had races, basketball games, tennis matches and forth. Whichever team had the most points at the end of the day won.[featured-image single_newwindow=”false”]
The final event was a tug of war. The four teams would face off against each other. Now, as you can probably imagine, because of my great strength, my team inevitably won.
But before the event we all used to chant—especially if our team was not in first place—“the tug is all that matters. The tug is all that matters.”
The point, of course, was that whoever won the tug of war was the strongest physically, and that ultimately mattered most.
Well I have a different message tonight. In Judaism, in our community, in our lives, the heart is all that matters. The heart is all that matters.
Is the Heart Jewish?
This may sound strange coming from a rabbi. Judaism tends to focus on the brain more than the heart, on what we know more than how we feel. And it may sound strange in our time and country, where we often value people simply for their usefulness.
Ezekiel Emauel, the well-known bioethicist and brother of the Chicago mayor, expressed this perspective recently in an essay in the Atlantic. He said he thinks 75 is the perfect age to die. After that, he said, most people have little to contribute to society and are a burden rather than a benefit.
I can think of few less Jewish ideas than this. It is not only heartless. It is wrong. My grandfather took me to Israel when he was 81 and changed my life. In this sanctuary we probably have thousands of similar stories.
What matters most is not how efficiently the heart is beating, but how wide it stretches.
What Ties Everything Together?
If we were to open the Torah scroll right now, we would see that its very last Hebrew letter is Lamed. Then if we rolled it all the way back to the beginning, we would see that its very first letter is Bet. When you put those two letters together, you can the word Lev. Lev means heart.
The heart is literally the end and beginning of the entire Torah. To live by the Torah we live from heart.
An Ancient Debate
The Jewish sages tried to capture how we live this way in the following dialogue found in the Talmud. Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai asked his disciples: What does a good person cherish most?
Rabbi Eliezer said, a good eye. Rabbi Joshua said, a good companion. Rabbi Yosi said, a good neighbor. Rabbi Shimon said, foresight. Rabbi Elazar said, a good heart.
Rabbi Yochanan said to them: I prefer the words of Rabbi Eleazar to your words, for in his words yours are all included.
This story is about more than just what we cherish. It is about what make life worth living. It challenges Dr. Emanuel in the way Hamlet challenges Horatio: “There is more in heaven and earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy. “
Let us see how.
1. The Eyes
The first rabbi says our most important feature is our eyes. What do the eyes do? They see. But they also deceive. Our eyes are impressed by appearances. None of us are immune.
Study after study shows height and race and a myriad of other surface factors shape our attitudes toward people.
In Hebrew the word for clothing—what we see, what we wear to shape our appearances—is begedim. The Hebrew word for deception, for treachery, is begidut. They share the same root. Appearance can deceive.
The idea goes even deeper than just prejudice. What we see—what we can hold and touch—can distort our understanding of value. We can see the size of the new iPhone. We can see the sparkle of a new watch. We can see the color of someone’s hair or the wrinkles on their skin.
But we can’t see the size of our heart. We can’t see the capacity of our dreams. Our Jewish sages would agree with the wonderful French writer Antoine de St. Exupery who said, “It is only with one’s heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
2. A Family
Okay. The eyes don’t work. But then Rabbi Joshua seems to offer a better answer. What is most important to a meaningful life? A good companion. We can read this more broadly. The text is not speaking simply of a spouse or partner. It is about family. A loving family, Rabbi Joshua suggests, makes our lives whole.
At first sight, this answer seems true. If you go to a cemetery and look at the tombstones, they typically say a person’s name, their life span, then “father, mother sister, brother, etc.” We choose to sum up our lives through our families.
But this answer is incomplete. We belong to families, but we are also alone. We are unique individuals. On Yom Kippur, some of the central prayers we say are in the singular. On this day of the year, we contemplate our essential aloneness and uniqueness. This can be difficult.
For many of us, it is not easy to be alone. And sometimes it is not easy to be unique. Just look at adolescents, as they struggle to fit in and be true to themselves. One of the greatest gifts Judaism can give us is a rich inner life, a part of ourselves that does not depend on others. Those inner resources come from the heart.
The next answer is related to family. It is our extended family, our community. That is what R. Yosi says is most important.
Again, this seems to be a very good Jewish answer. Community is sacred. As Mordecai Kaplan, the greatest American Jewish philosopher of the 20th century put it, in Judaism belonging is more important than believing. Identifying with, participating in, giving to our larger community is essential.
Maimonides, who preceded Kaplan by 1000 years, was the first person to describe man as a “social animal.” We need others to survive. And helping others brings us great satisfaction. Indeed, I could give you a 100 sermons or 100 stories about the importance of social action, good deeds, of tikkun olam. And over time I probably will. But tonight is different. Tonight we are looking at ourselves.
Tonight we can acknowledge that community has limits. Communities thrive on exclusion as well as inclusion. The Nazis felt they had a community. So did the Klu Klux Clan.
Without a good heart, without a moral compass, community can lead us in the wrong direction. Sometimes we stand against the community in the name of what is right.
The penultimate answer given by Rabbi Shimon is one we hear often today. Rabbi Shimon says foresight. What he means, I believe, is security, success, comfort.
Foresight is the ability to see the future. If we had foresight, we could predict the direction of the stock market or real estate. We could predict what would happen and live our lives accordingly. Sounds good, right?
The truth is that Judaism embraces success. We are not an other-worldly religion that glorifies suffering or poverty. Far from it. The Talmud says that in the afterlife, we will have to answer for any legitimate pleasure we did not enjoy when we were alive.
But to say success is what we most desire from life defies reality. We all know people with wealth or comfort or security who are not happy. Happiness and meaning come from what we do with our success, not simply the attaining of it.
5. The Heart
And what we do with that success depends on the condition of our heart. That is the final answer, given by Rabbi Eleazar. What quality must we cherish most? A good heart. A good heart is one that pumps blood—the life force— through our bodies. In figurative terms, it is the sensibility, the attitude, that drives our words, our actions, our decisions, our personality.
A good heart makes the eyes see more clearly. Our physical eyes—our pupils—see others for who they are. Our heart sees them for who they can be.
Seeing Our Future
A story told by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks drove home this truth for me. Sacks was until recently the Orthodox Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. He did not, however, grow up in an especially observant family.
While studying philosophy in Cambridge as an undergraduate, he decided to spend one summer in the United States exploring his faith. He wrote to and tried to meet with prominent American rabbis. One of those was our own Arnold Jacob Wolf. The one that stood out most to him, however, was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson.
Even then, in 1966, Schneerson was revered. He was an heir to a 200 year old dynasty and leader of a rapidly growing flock. As Sacks recalls, “My encounter with Rabbi Schneersohn was unlike any other. The first half of our conversation proceeded conventionally. I asked the questions, he gave answers. Then, unexpectedly, he reversed the roles and started asking me questions. How many Jewish students were there at Cambridge? How many were actively identified with Jewish life? What was I doing to engage them?
This was something for which I was not prepared. I was on a private intellectual quest, with no larger intention. I was interested in my Jewish identity, not that of others…. The Rebbe challenged me to lead. He saw gifts in me I did not know I had.”
When we see with the heart, we see people not only for who they are now. We see them for who then can become.
A Good Heart Sees a Broken World
Yet, a good heart not only sees others more clearly. It also sees the world more clearly. This clarity is not always positive. Rabbi Nachman, one of the greatest Hasidic teachers, said a good heart—a whole heart— is also a broken heart. In other words, a good heart knows the pain, heartbreak, the brokenness of our world.
Seeing the world so clearly can create pain and despair. Some people try endlessly to avoid that pain. They seek a world of escape, of fantasy, of illusion. Some even seek religion as their form of escape.
Karl Marx called religion the opiate of the masses. An opiate dulls our pain. It diminishes our sensations. Some religions can do that through fantasy and mindless ritual.
But not Judaism. We do not dull our pain with escape. We experience it as a source of empathy and compassion. When Rabbi Nachman said a good heart is also a broken heart, he was revealing a profound secret about faith.
A good heart is open to God. And the brokenness, the pain, the emptiness—is where God comes in. The vulnerability we experience reveals a connection we had never seen with our eyes.
That is not say that we need to suffer or feel pain in order to experience God. Rather, it is to say that when we feel that pain, our defenses are down. And when our defenses are down, what really sustains us is revealed.
All of us who have been through painful times know this truth. Something sustained us. Some force outside of ourselves held us up when we felt like falling. Some impulse kept our hearts beating amidst the pain, the disruption, the sadness.
The Heart Makes Us Fully Alive
What makes the heart so extraordinary is that it those pains, those holes don’t drown us. The ennoble us. They deepen us. They make us fully alive. The heart can contain the pain, the brokenness, the frustration, alongside the joys, loves, and excitements.
The heart sees more clearly than eye. It feels pain more deeply than the nerves. It heals more fully than the skin. And there are no age limits when it comes to the gifts the heart can give.
It may not always produce new books or let us climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the criteria by which Dr. Emanuel seems to measure the value of life. It may not always let us run a marathon. But it can lift us out of ourselves. It can link us to generations past, present and future.
Poet Philip Larkin said what will survive of us is love. We might also say what lets us survive—physically, emotionally, spiritually, existentially—is the heart. Indeed. The heart is all that matters.