The Heart of Heaven

28 JULY 2018 / 16 AV 5778

Parsha Summary
Moses stresses to the Israelites the importance of keeping God’s commandments when they enter the Land of Israel. Moses repeats the Ten Commandments and utters the Shema and Ve’ahavta prayers.

With appreciation to Maya Shapiro for sharing her awesome artwork.


I wonder what the Torah might mean by the words leiv hashamayim – the heart of the heavens – when it tell us that standing at Sinai, the mountain burned with fire up to the leiv hashamayim. (Deut. 4:11) You’ve learned all of these things, says the text. You’ve had all these experiences. This Torah you received is complete. And when you stood at the base of the mountain to receive it, above you was the heart of the heavens. 

Later in the same Torah portion in the shemaand the v’ahavta, starting at Deuteronomy 6:4, we get that word again – lev, heart. Only this time, it’s our own heart in question. We are to love God with all of it. 

If you are reading this and God language doesn’t work for you, I hear you. I appreciate you trying to stay with me anyway. Judaism isn’t literal. The story of Sinai doesn’t need to be read as history. That isn’t the point. And “God” as a word is super tricky, and far from the only word or the best word to express what we feel when we swim in the ocean or rock a baby, but it is also the most common language we have. 

V’etchanan. This week’s parsha, opens with this word that means “to implore.” One of the ten words for prayer. It is the one selected to ask for unearned favor. There is some feeling of desperation. It is an implored petition. We can sense supplication and humility and also a special kind of desire. What might be the relationship between lev – heart – and v’etchanan?

The Sages interpret the heart as the seat of craving and aspiration. Desire. Rashi teaches that loving with our whole heart meant with both the yetzer hara – the inclination for what is base or low, and the yetzer hatov  - the inclination for good.Rambam extends the message asserting that the yetzer hara is our earthly craving, the desire for food and drink, and physical gratification. By using both our lofty and also our earthly drives to the service of God, we are acting in love with our whole heart. What could heart even mean here? 

For these kinds of wonderings, I sometimes turn to the Jewish Virtual Library. Wonderful place. In the past little while there, I’ve been reminded that the root lamed-vav does not always mean heart, no matter what so many translators may tell us. In Nahum 2:8, the root refers to breast and women. II Samuel 18:14-15 suggests this breast need not always be understood as the breast that could nurse an infant as the attack that kills Absalom involved darts stuck in the lev – breast – more likely than not his chest. But then, the levis also associated with the generation of audible sound in reference to the dove (Isa:38:14), the lion (Isa. 31:4), and the lyre (Ps. 92:4). Perhaps . . . throat? What of the heart in the Torah never having a beat, or a physical pain or ailment? What of a heart obstruction signifying instead stubbornness? What is the difference in translation, for that matter, between gladness of heart and gladness?

Okay, so the ancients and our more recent ancestors took liberty with this word. Are we surprised? How specific are we in English when we refer to our very heart and soul? If we do something “half-heartedly” or get to the “heart of the matter” has that anything to do with the rhythm of the blood that travels our veins? Where do we imagine our craving and aspiring heart to reside? Just like in Hebrew, “heart” could more often express the general concept of “the inside”, much like yamim– seas – often means something more like “far away out in the expansive water” and hashamayim “the air” or “space” or “heavens.” (Ex. 15:8; Ezek. 27:4; Ps. 46:3; Prov. 23:34)

Certainly, if the interior of the body is our metaphoric center - the space of our feeling and thought, and as both we and the Torah are full of heart-as-metaphor, then there is an additional tension to the combination of words leiv hashamayim – the interior, the center, of the expanse. The heart of the heavens – both in what it intended, and in what we hear. 

Beyond that, as if there were anything beyond that, between these two references to heart are the words: Shema Yisrael, Adonai, Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. Literally hear, but also pay attention. Pay attention all of you people Israel! Adonai – the God who is big and expansive, is also our God here and close to us, and that big, expansive, close-to-us God is One – Echad. 

Then, remarkably, after being reassured about the One-ness of God, that’s when we are instructed to love that One-ness b’chol – with all. All of our heart, all of our nafshecha - soul, and all of our m’odechastrength/physical resources. If we combine everything we are internally, both emotionally and intellectually; everything we are spiritually; and everything we are physically – perhaps externally . . . are we not also one?  And, if we are, then we in our one-ness are instructed to love God in God’s One-ness.

In the shema, the letters ayin and daled at the end of the words shemA and echaD are written large in the Torah scroll, and also, for that matter, often in a siddur – a prayer book. These two letters together spell the word eid – witness. (Rokeach; Kol Bo) When we recite the shema, we are standing as witnesses. I don’t know what to make of this quite yet, but in Jewish law as a general rule, no single witness alone is competent to testify. There must always be at least two, which means there are a minimum of three involved: The witnesses, and the witnessed. (Deut. 19:15) In the case of the shema, the witnesses, and God.

You may have noticed, the moon has been waxing. On Tu B’Av, the 15thof this month, the month of Av, it will shine full on the evening of July 26. Tu B’Av is the Jewish Day of Love – post-Biblical day of joy, in the Second Temple Period (before 70 C.E.) a day of matchmaking, a day when the Biblical tribes could intermingle, when some legal boundaries blurred. Of course, in modern Israel, it’s a regular work day, and also a day something like Valentine’s Day. Four years ago, Liddy and I stood together under a chuppah – a wedding canopy – on this day. 


And what is romantic love if not a special kind of desire? What is the act of loving one’s beloved, if not a love that doesn’t ask to be earned? Sometimes that love has elements of desperation and supplication. It is always best with humility. How else should one love, but with one’s whole heart – everything lofty, and everything grounded?

It is said, that at a wedding, the couple under a chuppah stands at the very center of the universe. It is said that when we stood at Sinai, we stood as at a wedding, and we and God were wed. When we form a covenantal relationship, some kind of mystery happens and even as we retain our own identities, we also form something new that only exists within that relationship. In that relationship, perhaps we reside in the leiv hashamayim – in the interior, the center, of the expanse. The heart of the heavens.