Preparing to remember
Grief at the deaths of unarmed black men

This week's portion: cut away the calluses on your heart

DSCN5657WAt this weekend's Remembering Reb Zalman Shabbaton in Colorado a variety of my friends and colleagues will be collaborating on leading Shabbat davenen. I am humbled and honored to have the chance to leyn Torah on Shabbat morning. I was given the opportunity to choose the handful of verses from parashat Ekev which I wanted to leyn, and I chose Deuteronomy 10:12-19, which translate as follows:

And now, Israel: what does Adonai your God ask of you?
That with awe of the One, you walk in God's ways, and love God;
that you serve Adonai your God with all your heart and all your soul.
Keep God's connective-commandments and engraved-commandments
which I am giving to you today for your good / to improve your lives.
Behold: the heights of the heavens belong to God; the earth, and all that is upon it.
It was to your ancestors that God was drawn, out of love,
so that you, their descendants, continue to be chosen among all peoples even now.
Cut away, therefore, the calluses on your hearts; stiffen your necks no more.
For Adonai your God is the utmost and the highest (God of God, Lord of Lords.)
God: great, mighty, and awesome, Who doesn't play favorites and takes no bribe,
Who upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow
And loves the stranger, providing food and clothing.
Just so, you should love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

I initially chose these verse because I was drawn both to the beginning and to the end of this passage. I liked the exhortation to walk in God's ways and to relate to God both with awe and with love. I liked the exhortation to love the stranger, the Other, for we too have known Otherness and alienation. I imagined that I would offer a blessing, for those who come up for this aliyah, relating to these images. And I still resonate deeply with these verses.

But as I've been rehearsing these lines this week, what's really leapt out at me has been verse 16: "Cut away, therefore, the calluses on your heart, and stiffen your necks no more." Maybe it's standing out for me because of the way the Torah trope (the dots and dashes and symbols which indicate chanting melody) place emphasis on the instruction to cut away -- the melody rises like a waterfall flowing upward before gliding back down again.

And maybe it's resonating for me because I feel lately as though this is precisely what has been happening in me -- the calluses over my heart have been cut away, and my heart is open to the joy and the pain of the world. Every parent rejoicing, and every parent grieving. Every child who laughs, and every child who weeps. Everything that is good and beautiful and right in our world, and everything that is unjust and broken.

The great sage Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote (in his essay "On Prayer") that prayer should be subversive, should shatter the pyramids of domination and cut away the calluses on our hearts. Lately I've been aiming to open up the prayerful opportunities in every moment regardless of whether I'm engaged in liturgical prayer. Even when I'm not reciting formal words of prayer, life offers opportunities to bare my callused heart.

We can choose to make a practice of opening our hearts, of removing the protective scar tissue of anger and mistrust and the need to be right -- or we may find that life does that work for us, stripping away our walls and our calluses through illness, depression, tragedy, or loss. I think it is easier, perhaps gentler, if we do the work ourselves. If we ourselves cut away the calluses we have formed through indifference and callousness.

It is not easy to walk through the world with our calluses removed, with our hearts open to the exultation and the grief. But this is what this passage asks of us. This is what spiritual practice asks of us. When we cut away our defenses, and truly see the anguish of the widow and the orphan, the mother sobbing for her child, the injustices of war, the horrors wrought by illness, we can't help but fulfill the commandment most oft-repeated in Torah, to love the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

This week as we prepare to remember our teacher, rebbe, colleague, and friend Rabbi Zalman Meshullam Hiyya Schachter-Shalomi, these verses remind us to keep our hearts open to our mourning and our loss. To keep our hearts open to the sorrows in the news. To actively seek to remove the calluses which would protect us from awareness of suffering. To face that which we don't want to face: in the world, and in ourselves.

This is what Torah asks us to do. Maybe because when we do this, we naturally unlock our store of compassion, which leads us to work to repair what is broken in our world. Maybe because this is part and parcel of relating to God in love and in awe, of walking in God's ways. And maybe because this is a deep spiritual practice through which we do the inner work of transformation, the refining of the soul, for which we are born into this world.


Image source: Circumcision of the Heart by Gwen Meharg.