Parashat Ki Tavo: Heart and soul

Judaism does not teach us to disparage man or life but to believe that even with the great value of each person, there are values of truth that are worth dying for.

 THE MIDRASH identifies a person’s two hearts – the good and the evil inclination. (photo credit: Marek Piwnicki/Unsplash)
THE MIDRASH identifies a person’s two hearts – the good and the evil inclination.
(photo credit: Marek Piwnicki/Unsplash)

Parashat Ki Tavo ends with Moses’s long “Speech of the Commandments.” Afterward, we read about two covenants. First, we read Moses’s instructions prior to the covenant ceremony that his heir, Joshua Bin Nun, will hold on Mount Ebal after crossing the Jordan and entering the Land of Israel. After that, we read the extensive description of the covenant that took place in the plains of Moab, on the eastern side of the Jordan River. 

At the end of the speech, Moses briefly summarizes the ideal relationship between the Jewish nation and God:

“This day, the Lord, your God, is commanding you to fulfill these statutes and ordinances, and you will observe and fulfill them with all your heart and with all your soul. You have distinguished the Lord this day, to be your God, and to walk in His ways, and to observe His statutes, His commandments and His ordinances, and to obey Him. And the Lord has distinguished you this day to be His treasured people... and so that you will be a holy people to the Lord, your God...” (Deuteronomy 26:16-19).

“This day, the Lord, your God, is commanding you to fulfill these statutes and ordinances, and you will observe and fulfill them with all your heart and with all your soul. You have distinguished the Lord this day, to be your God, and to walk in His ways, and to observe His statutes, His commandments and His ordinances, and to obey Him. And the Lord has distinguished you this day to be His treasured people... and so that you will be a holy people to the Lord, your God...”

Deuteronomy 26:16-19

This incredible relationship, in which each side chooses the other, is based on the fact that God commanded the Jewish nation with statutes and ordinances, and the Jewish nation fulfills them with their hearts and souls.

The phrase “with all your heart and with all your soul” appears 16 times in the entire Bible, nine of which are in the Book of Deuteronomy – meaning, this is a central theme of the book, which deals with preparing the nation for independence in the Land of Israel.

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

So what is the significance of this phrase?

The Mishna in Berachot explains the verse “And you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your means” as follows:

“‘With all your heart’ means with your two inclinations, with your good inclination and your evil inclination. ‘With all your soul’ means even if God takes your soul” (Berachot 9:5).

“‘With all your heart’ means with your two inclinations, with your good inclination and your evil inclination. ‘With all your soul’ means even if God takes your soul”

Berachot 9:5

Let’s delve into this profound explanation.

The Mishna explains the words “with all your heart” in an interesting way. It sees in them an allusion to a plurality of hearts and identifies the two hearts a person has: the good inclination and the evil inclination (yetzer tov and yetzer ra). A person is commanded to love God and keep His commandments with both these hearts.

We can easily understand how to have a positive relationship with God through our good inclination, meaning the positive qualities of gratitude, morality, holiness, etc. But how can we have a positive relationship through our evil inclination? When we think of our negative qualities, such as jealousy, hatred, anger, selfishness, and others, they seem to contradict the values that we’d like to uphold.

The Torah disagrees. Remembering that we are created in God’s image (tzelem Elokim), we cannot abide by the claim that the essence of man is composed of negative qualities alongside positive ones. Human qualities are always good. The question is how, when and to what extent we choose to use them. If anger controls a person, this is obviously a situation that demands repair. But we do not aspire to lack this quality. Sometimes anger is necessary, such as when facing corruption or immorality. The same is true of jealousy. We must not let jealousy rule our lives, but many achievements that benefit humanity would not have been achieved were it not for jealousy. As our Sages have said, “Jealousy of Torah scholars increases wisdom.” This applies to every human quality. We do not seek to erase it but to learn when and how it can be beneficial. 

With this positive approach to man and his qualities, we take another look at the statement “‘With all your soul’ means even if God takes your soul.” Devotion to goodness can reach peaks in which man is willing to sacrifice his life for lofty values. Many of our ancestors gave their lives in the name of loyalty to Jewish values, preferring to die rather than live a life of falsity and deceit. 

Only when we can appreciate a person with all his various traits, which Judaism teaches us to do, can we grasp how radical it is to surrender one’s life for values. Judaism does not teach us to disparage man or life but to believe that even with the great value of each person, there are values of truth that are worth dying for. ■

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and other holy sites.