Friday, April 1, 2016

A New Heart, a New Spirit: Haftarat Shemini

       When we think of hard heart, who does this image most likely evoke?  If we are in a Biblical state of mind, we are most likely to think about Pharaoh.  Even when Pharaoh is inclined to let the Israelites go from slavery, God hardens his heart and he keeps them in captivity.  As we approach Passover, we often focus on the stubbornness of Pharaoh, the merit of the Israelites, and the saving power of God.  However, this weeks' haftarah from the Book of Ezekiel reminds us that the Egyptian monarch is not the only one to suffer from the spiritual affliction of a hard heart.  In Ezekiel 36:26, we learn about what God will do for us during the time of our ultimate redemption:

26And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit will I put within you, and I will take away the heart of stone out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh.כווְנָתַתִּ֚י לָכֶם֙ לֵ֣ב חָדָ֔שׁ וְר֥וּחַ חֲדָשָׁ֖ה אֶתֵּ֣ן בְּקִרְבְּכֶ֑ם וַֽהֲסִ֨רֹתִ֜י אֶת־לֵ֚ב הָאֶ֙בֶן֙ מִבְּשַׂרְכֶ֔ם וְנָֽתַתִּ֥י לָכֶ֖ם לֵ֥ב בָּשָֽׂר:
This haftarah follows the structure and themes of most prophetic texts. The Jewish people have sinned and have been punished through exile.  In the time of our ultimate redemption, God decides to bring us back to Israel from the four corners of the earth, not because we have sufficiently repented, but because God is good and cannot stand to hear His people mocked by the nations of the world. When we return, God will purify us with clean water, give us a new heart, and imbue us with a new spirit. Our collective heart of stone will be replaced with a supple and open heart of flesh.
      What does it mean to have a heart of flesh?  According to Rashi, it means "An inclination that has been renewed for the better."  A heart of flesh is not a perfect heart, but one that inclines us to make better decisions.  The Messianic era is not one where everything is perfect and we don't need to do any spiritual work -- rather we are inclined to make better, more holy, more kind decisions. According to the Radak, we are renewed thusly: החידוש יהיה בכך שהקב"ה יעשה בתוכנו שינוי שנהיה מוכנים יותר להקשיב לקב"ה ולשוב בתשובה ולתקן את עצמינו" -- our hearts will be better prepared to listen to God, repent, and repair ourselves."  A heart of flesh is a heart that is open, listening, compassionate, and ready to fix what is broken within the self.  Even in the time of ultimate redemption, we are not without work. Rather, we are more open, willing, and prepared to repair what is ruptured within us.  We are open enough to follow God's will and act in a way consummate with our title of am segulah, an exalted people.
     As Jews, we often refer to ourselves as am nivchar, or the "chosen people."  It is one of the most misunderstood concepts in how we perceive ourselves and others see us as well. To be a chosen people does not make Jews inherently better than anyone else.  In Ezekiel we learn that our hearts can be as hard as Pharaoh's (and unlike in the case of Pharaoh, our hearts weren't hardened against our will by God-- we have hardened our own hearts through sin!)  We learn elsewhere that we are not even the only people redeemed by God through a great exodus.  We have been chosen only for a specific task: to embody and enact Torah law and values.  When we forget or neglect our unique mission, our heart turns to stone, unable and unwilling to heed the guiding voice of the Divine.
     When we pray for the ultimate redemption, we not only orient our hearts toward resettlement in the Land of Israel, but also toward a new heart that is soft, open, purified, and ready for service.  It is a heart that hears the commanding voice of Torah and the cry of the orphan, stranger, and widow.  It is not a heart at rest in a world perfected by Another, but a heart ready for the hard and holy work of healing ourselves and the world around us.  It is a heart that is animated by a fresh spirit that is not weighed down by cynicism, greed, or solipsism, but rather is imbued with the hope of a brighter and more cooperative future.
    As we approach the holy time of Passover, let us pray not only for freedom from outside oppression, but also for the gift of a new heart.  Let us be redeemed not only from external pressure, but from the stubbornness within us that keeps us from being agents of God's will on earth.  In order to truly be a free people within our land, we must not only possess the physical force to protect our bodies, but also an openness and compassion to God's message and to the needs of those around us. May we all know what it is to be truly free in the time to come.

Shabbat Shalom.