Eikev 5778

A D’Var Torah for Parashat Eikev
By Cantor Sandy Horowitz (’14)

“Dear when you smiled at me, I heard a melody
It haunted me from the start
Something inside of me started a symphony
Zing! Went the strings of my heart”

These lyrics come from a song made famous by Judy Garland in 1938 and recorded by others many times since. “Zing went the strings of my heart…” What does this mean, exactly?  According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, the term “heartstrings” refers to one’s “deepest emotions or affections”. According to our singer, “Zing!” is the sound of heartstrings tugged by love.

Imagine our awareness of Divine Love being so strong, so immediate that it would make our heart go “Zing!”  Perhaps that is what God is asking of the Israelites in Parashat Eikev this week when they are commanded, “U’maltem et orlat l’vavkhem v’arp’khem lo takshu od”, “You shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart, therefore, and be no more stiffnecked.” (Deuteronomy 10:16).

Rashi teaches that the term orlat l’vavkhem (“foreskin of your heart”) refers to the blockage and covering of your heart. In her article on Parashat Eikev in The Women’s Torah  Commentary, Rabbi Gila Colman Ruskin elaborates on  this interpretation: just as God had commanded Abraham to circumcise himself and his household as a covenantal sign generations earlier, so now are the Israelites commanded to undergo a metaphorical circumcision of their hearts.  She writes, “when the foreskin of the heart is removed…contact between the self and the Divine becomes unobstructed.”*

This metaphorical circumcision might allow the Israelites to open their previously obstructed hearts towards God; however, unlike Abraham’s literal circumcision this is not a covenantal act between the people and God.  The covenant between God and the Israelites depends on following God’s commandments, as expounded upon by Moses in these early chapters of Deuteronomy.  “Beware that you not forget the Lord your God, in not keeping his commandments…” (Deut. 8:11). It is not stated as a matter of the heart.

What is the point then, of God asking the people to circumcise and unblock their hearts? The language following this commandment suggests an explanation.  As mentioned earlier, verse 10:16 states that the Israelites should open their hearts “…and be no more stiffnecked”.  Granted, the people had had good reason to be stiffnecked.  Having been enslaved for centuries, they then had to endure hardship and uncertainty in the wilderness while being asked to follow a God they had never met.  Weary and afraid, they defied this God and built the golden calf, and they complained about the manna that was their sole daily sustenance, and they acted rebelliously despite the many miracles they had experienced.  Perhaps Deuteronomy 10:16 suggests that now it is time for them to soften their hearts so that they may release the trauma of past hardships and “be no more stiffnecked”, thereby bringing them closer to God.

The text does not stop there.  In the verses immediately following we read, “God executes the judgement of the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and garment. Love you therefore the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt” (Deut. 10:18-19).  Our ancestors were instructed to unblock their hearts and be no more stiffnecked, not only for their own sakes but also for the sake of their obligations towards the stranger.

Like our ancestors before us, our own hearts may at times become hardened by exhaustion and fear.  Our hearts become hardened, we stop acknowledging how deeply we are blessed, and we resist our own obligation to care for the strangers in our midst.

“Dear when you smiled at me, I heard a melody…something inside of me started a symphony, Zing! went the strings of my heart…”

When we realize that we are loved, whether by human love as in this song or by the Divine Love expressed throughout the Torah, then we find the capacity to soften our hearts and open ourselves to the needs of others. This Shabbat we will announce the arrival of the Hebrew month of Elul, that time when we traditionally engage in the practice of examining our past deeds in preparation for the upcoming High Holidays.  Parashat Eikev suggests that we also examine the conditions of our hearts.  May we seek to remove the blockages which have kept us from sufficiently performing acts of loving-kindness towards others.

*”Circumcision, Womb and Spiritual Intimacy”, The Women’s Torah  Commentary, ed. By Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, Jewish Lights 2008, p.348.
Sandy Horowitz is the Cantor/Educator of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ. She received ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in 2014.