Open Heart Surgery

Parashat Shemot 2018
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Open Heart Surgery

There is a curious, little-known prayer called the ‘Havineinu’, meaning ‘grant us understanding’. Havineinu is a condensed version of the weekday Amidah. Instead of the usual thirteen middle blessings, the Havineinu offers a shortcut for extenuating circumstances.

One of the lines of this prayer that stood out to me was ‘l’da’at derachecha umol et levavenu liratecha’ – ‘that we may know Your ways; open our hearts to revere You.’  At least, that’s the slightly parve translation Siddur Sim Shalom gives us. Instead, we could translate it as ‘that we may know Your ways; circumcise our hearts to fear You.’

A little more intense, nu?

Circumcision of the heart is a frequently recurring trope in the Hebrew Bible; from the Torah (Deut. 30:6) all the way through the Prophetic literature (Ezekiel 36:26). It always refers to an internalized, emotional process of contritely drawing closer to God and self. The opposite is also true: an uncircumcised heart, coated with an ‘orlah’, a symbolic foreskin, or a hardened exterior layer, creates a spiritual blockage. Our tradition calls us to continually circumcise our hearts.
In fact, this is seen as such a priority that the Havineinu prayer substitutes the more traditional language of the full Amidah (or Shemoneh Esreh) of teshuvah (‘hashiveinu Avinu le’Toratecha, v’karvenu Malkenu la’Avodatecha’ – ‘return us, our Father, to Your Torah, and draw us closer, our King, to Your service’) for ‘mol et levavenu’ – ‘circumcize our hearts’.

When there are many historical layers between us and the text, it actually – on an ironic meta-level – requires us to cut away those layers of text so that we can feel the realness and rawness of it.

The thing is: it’s supposed to hurt. On some level, genuine, authentic, emotionally mature religiosity is supposed to be painful. Not traumatic, or abusive, but uncomfortable, unsettling, poignant. To circumcise one’s heart is to render oneself open, exposed and vulnerable. What God demands is open heart surgery.

Reading the first six chapters of Shemot (the book of Exodus) in preparation for this sermon felt like performing open heart surgery on myself. It is a painful text; and all of us can read the text in a way that speaks to our unique pain. Each of us can experience that pain in individual yet universal ways.

There is the pain of the narrative itself – betrayal, oppression, abuse of power, alienation, the existential threat of genocide, loss, fear, death – and then there is the pain of how each of us superimposes this timeless story over our own wounds, or the injuries of our world. As I read Shemot, I will admit that it ripped my heart wide open.
We are called to expose ourselves to the forcefulness of our tradition’s texts and this can be hard, uncomfortable and embarrassing because what the Torah asks us is:

Where is the heart of the Torah?
And where is ours?

Hearts will loom large in the narrative of the next few weeks, as Pharaoh hardens his heart or has his heart hardened through God. This presents us with a theological conundrum that needs unpacking at another occasion. After all, what is the role of free will if God toys with Pharaoh’s emotional resistance and moral agency? Yet, I am more interested in the anthropological response: what does Pharaoh’s hardened heart tell us about power and its discontents? About what can happen to all of us when we stop circumcising our hearts, peeling away the layers and layers of power, comfort and convention?

Moses calls us to the opposite of Pharaoh’s instincts.

There is a moment in Moses’ story that I would like us to draw our attention to. In Chapter Four, God charges Moses with his mission and famously, Moses resists. He says: ‘bi, Adonai, lo ish devarim anochi… ki chaved peh uvhaved lashon anochi.’ – ‘Please, Lord, I am not a man of words, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.’ (Ex. 4:10). The usage of ‘kaved’, heavy – or slow – is no coincidence. This word is part of the constellation of words that is used to describe an uncircumcised heart – or lips, or ear. We stop feeling, speaking or hearing adequately when our soul and senses are dulled and blocked. Why is Moses slow of speech?

The Midrash (Ex. Rabbah 1:26) offers its answer: when the infant Moses was about to seize Pharaoh’s gold crown, the court magicians warned Pharaoh that Moses would usurp the throne. An angel guided the infant’s hand to a basin of hot coals instead and burnt his lips as to remove any suspicion in Pharaoh’s mind regarding his adopted son. Moses suffered a speech impediment. Moses is forced to reckon with his own imperfect vulnerability before this alien, awesome, powerful God before Whom he stands.

That must have been scary.

Still, he is called to be vulnerable. In fact, God animates his vulnerability and uses Moses’ weakness as a teaching moment. Only four verses earlier, God demonstrates Divine power by causing symptoms of leprosy in Moses’ hand.
After God willingly impairs Moses, God says: ‘mi sam peh la’adam o mi yasum ilem o cherish o pikeach o iver, halo anochi Adonai?’ - ‘Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Eternal?’ (Ex. 4:11) On a superficial level, this is cruel: both individually towards Moses and cosmically in terms of what it could suggest about disability, deteminism and Divine will.

Yet, I’m choosing to read it differently. Moses, the haughty prince who had earlier demonstrated his physical prowess by striking dead a man through blunt force, now has to reckon with what makes him most vulnerable: his limitations, his discomfort, his embarrassment. Through that, he is forced to circumcise his heart, forced to dwell on what frightens or angers him, and forced to come to terms with a universe of power and his own power as well as lack of power. By reimagining himself as the most vulnerable through God’s voice – as the mute, deaf or blind – he cultivates the radical empathy he needs to help emancipate his people. Only by circumcising his heart can he confront Pharaoh’s heartlessness and not be destroyed by it. Furthermore, God clearly offers support, saying ‘I will be with you when you speak’ – ‘v’anachoi ehyeh im picha’ (Ex. 4:15).

This Parashah, like much of our liturgy, is meant to cut us open a little, make us feel unsettled and uncomfortable. That is its job. Yet we can also trust that goodness, love, dignity and godliness (whatever that may mean to you) will accompany us.


May we crack open our own hearts so that we, too, can ready ourselves and our world to leave Mitzrayim (Egypt).

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