Parshat Devarim: The heart of the matter

'And give me water for money, that I may drink; only let me pass through on my feet' (Devarim; Deuteronomy 2:28).

By
August 5, 2011 16:15
4 minute read.
Picture from the Parasha

Picture from the Parasha. (photo credit: Israel Weiss)

 
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Devarim is always read on Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat before the Ninth of Av, the fast for the destruction of both Holy Temples, the fall of Jerusalem and the loss of our national sovereignty. This calendrical connection is signaled by the words, “How so [eicha in Hebrew] am I able to bear your contentiousness, your burdens and your quarrels (Deuteronomy 1:12),” which will be publicly read this Shabbat with the same haunting cantillations as the Scroll of Lamentations (Eicha).

As these words suggest, the gravest sin, which leads to Jerusalem’s destruction, is strife within Israel, contentiousness, quarrelsomeness, the sin defined by our sages as “sinat hinam,” causeless hatred. To this end, the prophet Isaiah, when he presents his optimistic vision of hope for redemption, calls out, “Comfort you, comfort you, My people, speak upon the heart-Jerusalem and call out unto her; her period [of exile] has been completed, her iniquity has been forgiven” (Isaiah 40:1,2).

Note that the prophet refers to the city as heart-Jerusalem, a compound noun, apparently it is “heart” which defines Jerusalem. I am certain this is what Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook was referring to when he said of the Western Wall, symbol par excellence of Jerusalem: “There are some hearts which are of stone; and there are some stones which are truly hearts.” Such are the stone-hearts of the Western Wall; such is Jerusalem stone-heart.

The heart serves a crucial function: It is the true life force, pumping oxygenated blood through the body; oxygen is what enables us to breathe and blood is the vital substance of human existence.

Abraham entered the world arena and his descendants became a covenantal people chosen by God for an eternal mission, “in order that all gentiles of the earth be blessed by [his] seed. God chose [and loved] Abraham in order that he convey to his household after him… compassionate righteousness and moral justice.” According to all our prophets, this message will be conveyed at the end of days from the Jerusalem Temple, to which all the nations will flock. At that time they will beat their swords into ploughshares, forsake the cultivation of warfare (Isaiah 2, Micah 4), and “the nations will change to speak a pure language, they will all call upon the Name of Hashem [YHVH] and serve Him with a united resolve” (Zephaniah 3:9). Jerusalem will become the vehicle for Israel’s expression of the purpose for its being.

The heart is also the source of human emotion, specifically love: “You shall love the Lord [YHVH] your God with all your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:5). When the great biblical interpreter Rabbi Abraham ben Ezra (known as the Ibn Ezra, born in Tudela, Spain, 1089 - 1164) had to define “your fellow” in the verse “And you shall love your fellow” (Leviticus 19:18), he concluded that it must refer to every human being; after all, the verse concludes with “I am the Lord,” and the Lord created all of humanity from one divine womb.

Jerusalem will one day unite all of humanity within her bosom, for she is the heart, the shechina, the divine Womb. This makes all human beings siblings, as God’s children are inextricably interlocked by the love we must feel for each other because of the part of God in each of us, and the responsibility each must therefore bear toward the other. The love which will emanate from Jerusalem must extend to all the nations, even those which have cruelly harmed us in the past, even those who have sought to destroy us. This love is extended for as long as they now come in peace to worship the God of love, forgiveness and peace. It must be an unconditional love, like a mother has for the fruits of her womb. It must be a love without cause, aspiring to repair the causeless hatred which brought about Jerusalem’s demise.



In 1978, prime minister Menachem Begin, US president Jimmy Carter and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat met at Camp David to draft the peace agreement with Egypt. After all the negotiations had seemingly concluded, Carter handed Begin a letter to sign. The prime minister turned white and returned the letter, refusing to sign it. “But I did not ask you to give up Jerusalem,” said the American president. “I only asked that you put it on the negotiating table.”

“You don’t understand,” said the Israeli premier. “For 2,000 years, we Jews have been reciting a verse from King David’s psalms at every wedding ceremony: ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand lose her cunning: Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I hold thee not above my highest joy.’”

“But doesn’t your Jewish law maintain that you must give up a limb in order to save the entire organism?” remonstrated Carter. “Yes,” said Begin, “But not if the limb is one’s heart. Jerusalem is the heart of Israel, the heart of the Jewish people.”

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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