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Heart and Soul

This Shabbat is the last Shabbat of the current Jewish calendar year. Appropriately, our Sages structured the yearly cycle of reading the Torah to take advantage of the timeliness of the weekly message. As our thoughts naturally turn at this time to reflect on our past performance and how we can improve for the coming year, the Torah portions Shabbat prod us toward our goal.

In fact the Torah writes this week with the assurance, “And you will return to Hashem your God and you will listen…you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Devarim 30:2) Here the verse describes the perfect or complete idea of תשובה, repentance. Complete repentance involves the totality of the person, heart and soul. Likewise in describing the mitzvah to love God the Torah uses the expression, “with all your heart and with all your soul.” What are these two components and why are both necessary to fulfill these commands completely?

The commentator, Rashi, tells us the expression “all your heart” refers to serving God with both our good and bad inclinations. In truth there are no good or bad inclinations. All of our desires serve a purpose. This terminology is used by our Sages to describe feelings that generally produce positive or negative behaviors. Love, for example is a feeling that generally causes us to act toward one another in a caring way while aggression causes actions that are generally frowned upon. But aggression may be necessary to muster in order to save lives. Loving the taste of fatty foods may lead to serious medical problems. “With all our heart” tell us that we must employ every human desire and emotion to fulfill God’s commandments no matter how much it goes against our grain. Having mercy on a suicide bomber would be a misguided use of that emotion as would be our failure to respond to the plight of innocent victims because they have a different skin color or hail from a different part of the world than we do.

Our soul is tied up with mind and intellect, that part of all human beings that perceives ideas and continues to exist when our physical nature ceases. Through the process of education we refine our soul, removing the dross of false notions, one idea at a time. This process can be slow, arduous, not always systematic, and sometimes is even harsh. Often it is difficult to remove false notions once they have been introduced into the mind of a child. Many of the “midrashim,” for example, taught to our children remain in their literal sense throughout adult life. The intellectual shedding or revision that should happen doesn’t take place. The mind wants to hold on to a “comfortable notion” even in the face of overwhelming proof. This phenomenon appears even with great thinkers. Fred Hoyle, a brilliant astrophysicist and Nobel Prize recipient, could not give up his notion of a steady-state universe even after witnessing the proof for an expanding universe. Unfortunately, he died a broken man. “With all our soul” means the mind must be able to embrace the best knowledge or explanation, even if it means we must revise our premises and opinions.

To fully perform the mitzvah of repentance, on the highest level, requires harmony both within and between these two fundamental components, the heart and soul. Repentance isn’t just a confession, or apology. It isn’t even enough to abandon our bad behavior. Those are all necessary and important steps. However complete or perfect repentance requires an internal reorientation. In order for no conflict to remain, an ongoing review may be required until one’s perception of sin is changed. Then we can say a person has achieved full and complete repentance. The cause for the misbehavior no longer has any attraction for the individual. At that point our desires and our mind are working in tandem maintaining the person as a harmonious whole. Now the person is truly aligned with the commands and the will of God.

At this season of self-reflection, may God grant all of us the opportunity to begin the process of full and complete repentance, “heart and soul;” and may Hashem grant us the ability to renew our commitment to His Torah demonstrated by our generous giving to those who are recent victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan