First Day, 2010
Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel
Rodfei Zedek, Chicago
We are delighted to have in our hands our new Mahzor or High Holy Day Prayer Book. The ancient prayers have never been more beautifully arranged, and the translation and commentary are most impressive. The Mahzor also has a beautiful name: “Lev Shalem.” The term comes from one of the three “And therefore” paragraphs that spell out the themes of the Days of Awe. That paragraph reads, in part, “Put Your awe upon all whom you have made…let Your works revere You…and form one fellowship to worship you with a lev shalem.” But what does “lev shalem” mean?
Different Mahzorim have translated it in different ways. Our old Silverman Mahzor, along with the Hertz, Birnbaum and original Reconstructionist mahzorim, translated it as “a perfect heart.” The old Union Prayer Book and the newer Reform Shaarey Teshuvah translate it as “with perfect heart.”
Personally, I hope that it doesn’t mean “perfect heart.” Rabbi Harold Kushner asks: “Where did we get the idea that we have to be perfect to be good, to be worthy of love and acceptance?” He observes: “The person who cannot admit a mistake, who always has to be right, may think he or she is showing strength, wisdom, control. In point of fact, what he is showing is weakness and fear, the fear that if he confessed to being fallible, if it became known that he wasn’t perfect, people would no longer love him…. [T]he four most religious words in the English language are ‘I may be wrong,’ and…in a power struggle between parent and child, between husband and wife, the first one to use the words ‘I may be wrong’ wins, because he or she has been able to outgrow the immature need to win every point.”
Rabbi Kushner concludes that we need to understand that just as others are unrealistic in expecting us to be perfect, so are we “equally unrealistic” in assuming that others, even parents, were perfect, and that anytime they criticized us, they were right. He asks, “Can you accept the idea that if your father never told you he loved you, it’s not because you’re not lovable. It’s because he had trouble saying those words, probably because of the way his parents raised him and the circumstances of his childhood, and if we had all the facts, we could probably trace the blame all the way back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but really what difference would it make?” He assures parents: “We can let go of the notion that our children have to be perfect in order for us to love them. We [need]…no longer see their failures as reflecting on us, and so we will be able to respond to their problems, their shortcomings, in a spirit of support and compassion, rather than disappointment and blame.”
I think of this classic and wise observation on perfection by Rabbi Kushner when I consider the translation of lev shalem as a “perfect” heart. I don’t think that lev shalem means “perfect heart,” anyway, both in the context of the ancient prayer for the Days of Awe and in Jewish tradition in general. In the Bible and in subsequent Jewish tradition, the human heart is just not considered perfect. “The heart is deceitful above all things,” says the Prophet Jeremiah. But the Rabbis assure us that God still wants the “heart.” They remind us that in the Torah, in the Shema, in the verse, “you must love the Lord your God b’chol levavcha, with all your heart,” the word for heart is spelled with two bet letters instead of the usual one to teach us that we must love God with our evil inclination (yetzer ha‑ra) as well as our good inclination (yetzer ha‑tov).
We can’t come before God with a “perfect” heart. Under the best of circumstances, we come before God not only with imperfections, but with a raging battle within. We achieve much if we can muster our destructive urges and impulses and our negative qualities to join our higher aspirations in seeking repentance and reconciliation. Just coming to pray with all our heart, even the flaws and negatives, is an achievement.
If we were to wait to have a “perfect heart” before doing anything, let alone before praying, we would never be able to pray or to get anything done. Rabbi Kuk, who was the Chief Rabbi in Eretz Yisrael in the early 20th century, famously observed: “The enemy of goodness is perfection.” Many people paralyze themselves from action by deciding not to act until they can do something perfectly, until they have the perfect plan. In that way, they forfeit precious opportunities to help themselves or others. True, planning is important, but sometimes we must act immediately and worry about the details of the plan later. Anyone who has worked in an emergency room or seized a rare opportunity for a business venture or other project knows this well.
We have all heard Edmund Burke’s saying, “Evil triumphs when good people do nothing.” We might add that evil triumphs even when people delay doing something for good reasons, like awaiting a better plan. The moral imperative of the High Holy Days, and the ability of this season to transform each and every one of us personally, was expressed briefly but memorably by the Psalmist who wrote: “Sur me-ra v’aseh tov, Turn from evil and do good.” That’s all it takes to set the process of teshuvah or repentance into motion. As the great Hasidic Sage said: All we need to do is to stop walking in the direction we have been taking and take one step in a better direction.
We can’t do teshuvah if we wait for a perfect heart. But doing something, even if it is simply changing direction, goes a long way toward “purifying” our hearts, to use an expression of the Psalmist (20:9, 22:11) and of our Hebrew prayers. We don’t need a “perfect heart” to come before God with a lev shalem. If we waited for a “perfect heart” we might wait far too long, both ethically and spiritually speaking. Our new Mahzor offers a better translation of lev shalem: “wholeheartedly.”
If we look to the word, shalom, the word for “peace,” we might find a better definition of lev shalem, the name of this new book which we hold in our hands, a name that is difficult to define. We might thereby find peace and constructive engagement with the imperfections within ourselves and others, as we stand before our Maker.
We know that the term shalem, means “full” or “complete.” It comes from the root for shalom, which means “peace.” Peace is associated with completeness. Indeed, the new Reconstructionist Prayer Book translates the passage, “Let all of them, as one, enact your bidding with a whole and peaceful heart.” This is a bit closer to what kind of lev or heart is a lev shalem.
Each of us can figure out, on our own and right off the bat, that we require, first and foremost, an honest heart, a heart of integrity. Our Yom Kippur services will begin on Kol Nidre with the Psalmist’s words: “Or zarua lzakid ul’yishre lev simchah—Light is sown for the righteous and for the yishre lev, the straightforward of heart, there is simchah, joy. The concept of a whole and peaceful heart certainly corresponds with that of a lev shalem. One with a straightforward heart stores light, as it were, because he or she is not hiding some darkness and resisting light out of fear of a flashlight revealing that which one wants concealed.
A burly lineman for a professional football team often stayed out late despite the club’s curfew. He would pile things under his blankets, making it appear he was in bed. At one hotel, however, he couldn’t find enough things with which to stuff the bed. So he stuck a floor lamp under the covers and departed. When a suspicious coach peeked in at 1:00 a.m. and snapped on the light switch, the bed lit up.
A lev shalem is, first and foremost, a heart of integrity, a straightforward heart that does not shun light shining into its recesses, but stores the light. A lev shalem is, secondly, a sound heart. In the Torah we read of the Patriarch Jacob, “And Jacob came shalem, with soundness, to the city of Shechem” (Gen. 33:18). Our Rabbis interpreted this to mean that Jacob found a wholeness, both in his health, in his possessions and in his knowledge of Torah. He had the capacity to take stock and to find a sense of accomplishment in what he had achieved, in what he had learned, and in what he was healthy enough yet to do. Yes, he was grateful, but he was something more: He felt a completeness because he had a sense of having completed worthy things.
In his fascinating diary, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, defined happiness in just this way: “As I was walking through Central Park I thought I caught the secret of happiness as being that of carrying out what you undertake, hence if you want to be happy first make sure of what is within your power to achieve and work away at that.”
In Hebrew, the concept of shlemut, or soundness, is from the same root as shalem, to pay. Just to pay one’s bills, one’s debts, is a form of soundness and completeness. Our prayers are most meaningful when we can approach God with a sound heart, with a sense of having accomplished something and of finding the inspiration to accomplish good and worthy things, with a sense of having paid off and paid back debt and obligation. A lev shalem, a sound heart, enables us to use our personal resources and achievements for further achievements, beneficial to family, community and to society at large.
Indeed, a lev shalem is not only personal. It mainly refers to community: “so that all You have fashioned will revere You…and all be bound together, carrying out Your will wholeheartedly.” It is quite possible that the kind of heart that we pray to bring to the worship of God refers more to our cooperation with others than to our own peaceful heart or completeness of heart. Rabbi Max D. Klein’s 1960 Seder Avodah Machzor, written for Philadelphia’s Congregation Adath Jeshurun, one of the few Conservative congregations to have published its own Prayer Book, translates lev shalem to mean “with complete accord.” We seek to pray, thirdly and lastly, with a lev shalem in the sense of a cooperating heart, in addition to a straightforward heart and a sound heart. We express the hope that we might work together with other Jews and with humanity as a whole to help God achieve the Divine vision for humanity.
Over the past several months, the world has watched the City of Chicago with horror at the increase of murders here on the South Side, to neighborhoods where the value of human life, in the Divine image, seems much diminished by gangster values. While everyone agrees that something must be done, there is much disagreement as to how to achieve this. In the past, there have been demonstrations in the form of processions of people on foot, sometimes forming a human chain to see that kids arrived at school safely and left soundly. More often, tragically, children and youth, mostly innocent bystanders, had been killed after marches against violence.
Last month, I thought of another possible way that citizens might be bound together to alleviate conditions that lead to street violence. On President Obama’s birthday, I, like many Chicagoans, was re‑routed when Lake Shore Drive was closed out of security concerns for the arriving motorcade. Scores of cars were sent down South Side streets that drivers usually avoid, often for good reasons. I noted that on one of those streets, residents were standing and waving to those of us in the re‑routed cars, as if to say, “Why don’t you come through here more often?” Could routings of traffic, with ample police presence, and safety motorcades for children, alleviate some of the conditions for violence until the causes can be dealt with? There are no easy answers, but maybe our efforts to pray with a lev shalem, in this third sense of a heart in complete accord with others, might yield some valuable thoughts and solutions with regard to the terrible and mounting problem of street violence.
Our cities, our world and our lives are far from perfect, but the good news is that we don’t have to be perfect, or even to have “perfect” hearts, to come before God in prayer. These Days of Awe remind us that we do need to cultivate upright hearts and sound hearts and unified hearts to do God’s will wholeheartedly. God grant that we so prepare and cultivate our hearts, this day, and throughout the days to come. Amen.
→ Return to the Pulpit Shelf.