One of the more bizarre verses is in this week’s Torah portion. Moses says to the Israelites, “You shall circumcise your hearts. And no longer be a stiff-necked people.” What does it mean to circumcise one’s heart? Do our hearts have a covering that we must cut off? Not literally I hope!
The commentators present many ideas, all of which are thankfully metaphorical. Ibn Ezra, wrote, “to distance oneself from the heavy, baseless desires of the uncircumcised.” While we might disagree with his opinion of the uncircumcised, it is clear that Ibn Ezra holds us to a high standard, that we should not pursue what those around us desire if it is not right for us, or for a higher purpose. Ramban, or Nachmanides, a 13th century commentator who lived in Spain and Israel, disagreed with Ibn Ezra, presenting two interpretations. His first interpretation was that the generation that wandered in the desert had uncircumcised hearts, as they were not open to the Torah and its commandments. He wrote: “Your hearts will be open to understand the truth and not be like your forefathers, a rebellious generation.”
It is Ramban’s second interpretation that is my favorite: Not to favor the great people in their quarrels with the small people, and not taking bribes from the rich…for one who does justice for the orphan and the widow is the one who is truly great.” Here to circumcise one’s heart means to side with those marginalized, who need justice. It is easy to identify with the rich, or with someone who is a celebrity. It is much harder to side with those who are destitute, to help the people we see on the streets in downtown Manhattan. At times it might even be difficult to believe that our help can make a difference or to see these individuals as human. That is where the principle of circumcising one’s heart comes in, cutting away the hard edged, cynical layers and getting to the softer layers which are open to helping those in need.
There is also a parallel between brit milah and milat halev, circumcision of the foreskin and of the heart. The former is a sign of a male entering the covenant of the Jewish people. The latter is a sign of both males and females taking their place in the covenant through doing gemilut hasadim, acts of lovingkindness. While a brit milah or a simhat bat is a wonderful sign of one’s Judaism, these rituals are done when one is a child. When one is an adult, how can he/she show his/her commitment to Judaism? Through an open heart used for helping those who are in need.
During this Shabbat, let us take the time to reflect on how each of us might demonstrate an open heart, one in which the calloused, rough edges are cut away, creating room for serving our communities. May we take the steps necessary to lose our pessimistic, jaded outer edges to make room for optimistic, active inner edges that are set on making a difference in the world. In doing so, we will be on our way to fulfilling the Torah and God’s commandments.