Home > Divrei Torah > March 8, 2018 – Parashat VaYakhel-Pekudei, 5778

March 8, 2018 – Parashat VaYakhel-Pekudei, 5778

March 8, 2018

You Gotta Have Heart…or Do You?
A D’var Torah for VaYakhel-Pekudei
by Rabbi Rena H. Kieval, ’06

The great communal building project of the mishkan, the wilderness tabernacle, finally gets underway in this week’s double Torah portion, and the participants who craft, create and assemble it are reportedly full of heart.   The Hebrew word for heart –lev – and its variants libo, libam, and so on, are repeated at least a dozen times.  We read of the generous of heart – nedivei lev (Ex. 35:5, 35:22), who donate their jewels and fine fabrics for the structure; the wise of heart – hokhmei lev (Ex. 35:10, 35:25), who are skilled and able to share their artistic talents, and their building and organizational abilities.  We read too of the nesi’ei lev (Ex. 35:21, 35:26) those with uplifted hearts, or perhaps, those whose hearts have lifted them up to participate.  The hearts of this community are so overflowing that they give more than is needed, and Moshe famously needs to ask them to stop the donations!

This portrait of a passionately generous community places the building of the Israelites’ sacred space in an inspiring and almost joyous framework.   Yet, in reality, how many communities or individuals rise to the ideal level of “heart” that the Torah describes?  We know that the Torah tells the story of real people, not fairy tale characters.   And we know that among any group of real people, not every person’s heart will always be in the most exalted place.

While a willing, generous heart is a desirable and beautiful quality, Judaism teaches that heart is not a pre-requisite to doing the right thing.  For example, if we inconvenience ourselves to help our spouse, friend or child with a project, even as our hearts are wishing we were elsewhere, we have still been a good mate, friend or parent.   If we offer financial support to a worthy cause while begrudging the impact on our bank balance, we have still behaved well and the worthy cause benefits.

Sometimes we hope that when we do the right thing, our hearts will catch up with our actions.  Writer and teacher Aviva Cayam calls this phenomenon “heart lag.”  She offers a ritual example of this: that we may light Shabbat candles even when our household is in chaos and we feel far from peaceful.  The proper intention, while it is the ideal, sometimes is not present.  But the action may help it grow, as in this instance, candle lighting might help bring Shabbat’s desired shelom bayit.

In Jewish tradition there certainly are times when kavannah, the right intention, the right heart, is considered essential.  Every single letter of a Sefer Torah, for example, must be written with sacred intention.   I recall hearing Israeli soferet Rabbi Hanna Klebansky describe her work.  She noted that if the phone rings while she is working on a scroll, or if for some other reason a letter is not written with absolute, complete focus, with heart, she erases that letter and redoes it.  Intention and lev (heart) are part of the kedushah (holiness) of the act.

Our sages require that when we pray, the beginning of Keri’at Shema must be said with full intention – kavannah; if not, we should repeat it.  But, being realists about human nature, the sages also ruled that the rest of the Shema paragraphs, while ideally said with kavannah, do not need to be repeated if the kavannah is missing.

If we expect our hearts to be in the right place all the time, we can become paralyzed.  Instead, we need to accept ‘heart lag;’ we need to be able to feel anger, doubt, resentment or indifference, and still do the right thing.  This, after all, is how we train children to behave properly:  “Say I’m sorry,” we insist when they’ve done something wrong, or “Say thank you,” even if their feelings do not match their actions.    Sometimes we smile at the neighbor who annoys us, we visit a sick friend even when we dread it, and we care for our difficult aging parents even when doing so may challenge or distress us.

We also pray even when we don’t feel especially holy.  We hope that our hearts will catch up to our actions.  The rabbinic sages said, Mitokh shelo lishmah, ba lishmah (Pesahim 50b).  If we keep doing something even without the right intention, we will eventually come to do it with the right intention.   More colloquially, we might say, “fake it til you make it.”

This Jewish notion is countercultural.  Contemporary culture often promotes the idea that we should do only what our hearts dictate, what makes us feel good or “comfortable.”  In contrast, the Jewish way of life asks us to perform mitzvot as sacred obligations, to practice tzedakah as an act of justice, not because we feel like it.   We cannot always wait to do mitzvot until we feel absolutely emotionally ready.   We might never get there, and the world, and those who need us, cannot always wait.

We tend to belittle insincere actions – both in ourselves and in others.  We are disappointed in half-hearted gestures.   But the level of passion in our behavior does not necessarily reflect its importance.  A half-hearted gesture might be a first step towards something that will someday be whole-hearted.  Or an act done by rote, without much enthusiasm, might still make a world of difference to its recipient.

The human heart has amazing potential for expansiveness and openness.  We can and should be inspired by the generous, wise and uplifted hearts of the Israelites in our Torah portion.  Yet even as we work towards those ideals of heart, we don’t always “gotta have heart.”   We can be inspired knowing that although few of us always have our hearts in exactly the right place, our hearts have an amazing capacity to grow in generosity and wisdom.  We know that when we imperfect beings come together with an uplifted communal heart to do the right thing, we can create, build and dwell in sacred space.

Rabbi Kieval (AJR ’06) serves as Rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, New York.