“You shall love God with all your hearts…”
We’ve had a lot of hearts this past week. Stores are trying to offload heart-shaped chocolates, balloons and necklaces at deep discounts, as if love a little late is no longer love. If you buy now, you’ll be ahead for next year. Since this is a dvar Torah about love written a week after Valentine’s Day, it is also available at a bargain price: free. Free seems to be just the right price.
I also just finished Jan Philipp Sendker’s novel, A Well-Tempered Heart. Sendker is a German writer who wrote non-fiction until his first novel, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, shook the reading world with its innocent and compelling love story set in Burma. He portrays the heart as an instrument of romance, intuition and deep connection. Hearts seem to be everywhere lately.
Everywhere includes our prayers. Our most central prayer, the Shema, contains an often mistranslated expression: we need to love God with all our “hearts.” Tractate Brakhot (26a-b) suggests that this is no mistake but an intentional demand – that we love God with the two inclinations that reside within every human soul: the good inclination and the bad inclination. We were created with the breath of God and the dust of the earth. This duality must be present in what we give back to our Creator – the highs and lows, the contradictory mix of our more animal nature and the holiness of our transcendent nature.
Love - to be rich, full and complex - needs to express the entirety of the human heart, our profoundest longings, our doubts, our trust, our suspicions, our weaknesses and inadequacies. If we bring God any less, we are not bringing God our total selves. If we give others less, then they, too, are not experiencing the multi-faceted dimension of a relationship. The heart talks, and as Milan Kundera tells us in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object.”
Maimonides in his “Laws of Prayer” understands this demand – to love God with all our hearts – in concrete ways. Prayer requires our utmost concentration and focus. He writes that when one recites the Shema one should not gesticulate with one’s eyes, lips or fingers since these are bodily ways of speaking and reduce our concentration. To increase focus, one should recite the Shema so that the words are enunciated clearly and audibly to oneself (note: people who mumble loudly during prayer, however, take away from the concentration of others). In the enunciation, Maimonides tells us specifically that we should pause very slightly between the words “b-khol” and “levavekha” – with all your heart. Each word should be crystal clear and stand on its own so that we understand as we read it that it is important not only to give our “hearts” but that we must give all of our hearts, directed and intentional. True love never demands less.
The poet Pablo Neruda, in his famous collection of love poetry, writes of the heart as a compass, a guide to direct and uncompromised attention:
“Then love knew it was called love.
And when I lifted my eyes to your name,
Suddenly your heart showed me my way.”
We offer our hearts to people and causes, in love and in friendship, and sometimes they get bruised. But sometimes we make our offering of affection, lift our eyes and see that someone else’s heart has received our gift and returned it because we gave it with all our hearts.