Nitzavim: Brokenness is where it all begins
I never understood the phrase “tzom kal,” “have an easy fast.” Are our fasts meant to be easy? Is it easy going 25 hours without eating and drinking? For most of us, I doubt it.
On fast days, I try to say (at least to those who are medically permitted to fast), “have a meaningful fast,” because I think that speaks more poignantly to our goals for marking the holiday. Whether it is Tisha B’Av or Yom Kippur, fasts are meant to put us in a reflective state. Every time we feel hunger pangs, we catch ourselves and instead are reminded why we refrain from physical gratification.
Fasts are not meant to be easy.
In our Torah portion this week, parashat Nitzavim, we read the following:
“And the Lord, your God, will open up your heart and the heart of your offspring, [so that you may] love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, for the sake of your life.” (Deuteronomy 30:6).
Doesn’t that sound so nice, this idea of God opening our hearts? Isn’t that a beautiful image for our New Year, to have our hearts open to change, to repentance, to other people, to God? How nice of God to help us out in this regard.
Not so fast.
Such an image might sound beautiful, but when we look a little closer at the Hebrew text of the Torah, we find a very different image. The actual Hebrew text begins with the words “u’mal Hashem…,” which would roughly translate to: “And the Lord, your God, will circumcise your heart…”
Gulp. Now that is a very different message.
Why does the Torah use the word “u’mal,” the word for circumcising, when referring to our hearts? Couldn’t it just have said that God “opened” our hearts?
We read a similar verse earlier in the book of Deuteronomy, in parashat Eikev. Here we read: “cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts…” (Deuteronomy 10:16).
Many commentators understand the phrase “circumcising the heart” as a way of removing the metaphorical foreskin that prevents us from being open to God’s Torah. In this earlier verse, the Israelites are asked to remove these barriers and in the verse from this week’s parasha, it is God who cuts away this barrier. As we approach Rosh Hashanah, this could be a lesson about how we receive the Torah anew: first we must do our part to open our hearts, and only afterward does God step in and do the rest of the work. First, we must do teshuvah, repent, and only after does God meet us halfway.
But my question still remains. Why in the world does the Torah use the word “circumcise” and not the word “open?”
Let us look at the sacred ceremony of a brit milah, a ritual circumcision. The ritual of circumcision is an act that binds a Jew with the covenant. It is a way of accepting the traditions of the Jewish people. It is an acknowledgment of a lifestyle, a promise, a faith that has kept us alive and sustained us throughout the centuries. At this time of year, as we approach Rosh Hashanah, these words, referring to the “circumcising of our hearts,” encourage us to reaffirm our connectedness to that same covenant, to accept the Torah anew, to begin all over, as if we were a baby at his bris.
But there is more to it than that.
We say “circumcising our hearts,” and not “opening our hearts,” because this process of teshuvah — of repentance and returning to God — is not meant to be easy. Just ask the parents of a baby boy on the day of his bris. Further, “circumcising our hearts” involves a cutting, a tearing, a vulnerable opening of our deepest secrets and wounds that are hidden deep in our hearts. We must do our part to go to that deep, raw, and broken place and only then, I believe, can we experience a true return to the Divine.
Fasts are not meant to be easy and neither is this repentance stuff.
In this New Year, may you and your loved ones reaffirm your connectedness to the Jewish covenant and God.
May you be given the blessing of brokenness — the gift of going to that spiritual place where your hearts can feel a little torn, open and reflective.
Because brokenness is where it all begins.