Exercising the Jewish Heart
Adapted from Parasha U’Likcha by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender
The heart is a muscle. It needs exercise. The Torah prescribes a series of exercises which, if performed correctly, are guaranteed to keep the Jewish heart fit. What kind of exercises does the Torah prescribe?
These exercises strengthen the Jews’ capacity to love other people. Though very short in length, these exercises target key points in the Jewish capacity for healthy heart-function. All Jews participate in these exercises at synagogue. However, consistent intentional performance of these exercises massages the heart into a flexible, softened state lasting even when the heart is taken out and exposed to the marketplace of life.
We’ve all taken a walk through this marketplace, haven’t we? Subversive human drives beckon from dark corners. Stilted agendas veer people into losing their way. Conflict and competition seep into even the most intimate of human spheres. These destructive forces can undermine the good in every aspect of life.
But those dedicated to Torah’s daily exercises enjoy a unique confidence even when faced with the worst of human potential. Their chances of maintaining freedom from such heart-disease as selfishness and arrogance are particularly high.
These exercises are explicitly commanded in the Torah: “Speak to Aharon (Aaron) and his sons, saying, ‘So you shall bless the Children of Israel, saying to them: ‘May Hashem bless you and safeguard you. May Hashem illuminate His countenance for you and be gracious to you. May Hashem lift His countenance to you and establish peace for you. ’’Let them place My Name upon the Children of Israel, and I shall bless them” (Numbers 6, 23-27). A detailed understanding of how to perform the commandment reveals exactly how these exercises keep the Jewish heart vital.
The beginning of the exercise goes like this: right after the Torah reading, daily in Israel and during three holidays in the diasporas, all the Kohanim (those descended from the priestly lineage) wash their hands and go to the front of the synagogue to stand on the pulpit. At the pulpit, they stand focused and ready to bless the congregation. As one of the congregation calls out, “Kohanim!,” then, and only then, the men on the pulpit begin their blessing.
Before beginning to bless the Jewish People, though, the Kohanim recite a mitzvah-blessing acknowledging the Almighty for “commanding us to bless His nation Israel with love.” Now, mitzvah-blessings are recited over many mitzvos (commandments), but none of them mention that they are to be performed “with love”. Since all mitzvos are supposed to be performed with love, why is love only mentioned here?
Our sages explain that the reason love is mentioned explicitly in this mitzvah-blessing is because love is the key to ensuring that the blessing on the people will take effect. Torah wasn’t interested in Kohanim mouthing words meaninglessly. The Torah wanted the blessing on the people to come from the Kohanim’s hearts. Unless their hearts are awake and engaged with the people when the blessing on the people is being spoken, the heavenly abundance the blessing is meant to release has no way of pouring down. The Kohanim need to open their hearts with a yearning and desire that those they are blessing will genuinely merit good tidings. The Kohanim have to love the congregation by training their hearts to love every Jew. It is only if this love conquers everything else lurking inside of them that their blessing has worth, power, and influence. They must train themselves to see the good in other people so that during the moment of truth, the love in their hearts with flow sincerely.
Simultaneously, the congregation turns to the Kohanim ready and waiting to receive their blessing. The congregants all stand with heads bowed, eyes closed, and respond, “Amen,” to the Kohanim facing the congregation with outstretched hands. The hearts of the congregation and the Kohanim are opened to each other. The loving perspective the congregation and the Kohanim share towards one another is what allows the blessing of the Almighty to rest on the entire group. A love of humankind awakens in their hearts like a bird raising wings to fly. Everyone feels included as an atmosphere of generosity and warmth envelop the entire congregation.
If even a fraction of the refined emotions pouring out of a Jew’s open heart during those moments is carried on to the marketplace of life, the fabric of society is indelibly altered. Imagine what the Jewish People would look like if we all loved one another that way all the time. Blessings without end...