One Soul, Many Hearts

This week's Dvar Torah was written by independent scholar, researcher and writer Dr. Marsha B. Cohen, one of the instructors of Adult Learning/Melton & More

I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds


--Wallace Stevens, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

One of the challenges translators of Scripture must deal with are subtle grammatical shifts and oddities within the Hebrew text of the Pentateuch. These subtleties challenge prevailing conceptions and conventions in other languages, and within the Hebrew language itself. They complicate the translator’s mandate to simplify and clarify, while remaining faithful to the text.


The commentator, the philosopher, the scholar and the mystic actively seek and find within such subtleties an invitation to discover depth and nuance that enrich understanding by challenging the reified meaning the translator has chosen.


A good example is one of the most widely recognized passages of the TaNaKh/ Hebrew Bible, found in this week’s Parshat Va’etchanan (a mainstay of the liturgy in both public and private prayer), the exhortation known as “The Shema,” and the passages in Deuteronomy that immediately follow it. Within these verses, there are abrupt shifts in who is being addressed.


The Shema asserts “God is our Lord, God is One.” (The new Jewish Publication Society version translates this as “Adonai is our God, Adonai alone” for reasons that would divert us to scholarly and theological debates concerning God’s unique nature.)


What receives little attention, and our focus here, is a grammatical oddity in subsequent verses concerning the human heart. It is essential to note here that “heart” (lev) also connotes mind, thought and understanding. 


In Hebrew, the word for “my heart” is libi, and for the singular “your heart,” libechah. In the first person singular, “our heart”—one shared heart—is libeinu, “our hearts” livaveinu, and “your hearts” levav’chem


In the verses immediately following the Shema known as the V’ahavta, the mandate given by Moses instructs (Devarim/Deuteronomy 6: 5-6): “You (singular) will love the Lord your God with all your (singular) hearts (levavechah--plural!), with all your soul (nafshecha--singular) and with all your else (m’odechah—singular). And these things I am commanding you (singular) on this day will be on your (singular) hearts (plural).”


These shifts between first second person singular and second person plural are indiscernible in English, a language in which “you” and “your” can be singular or plural. 

But take care watch yourself (singular) and greatly guard your soul (singular) so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so they do not depart from your hearts (mi’levavechah) (Deut. 4:9)


…you (singular) will know on this day and take to your hearts (levavechah) that Hashem is the only God in heaven above and on earth below (Deut. 4:39)

This isn’t a grammatical fluke. Hebrew has a singular form for “your heart”-- libechah.


So why doesn’t the Torah say, “With all your heart” (libechah), with all your soul (nafshechah) and all your [everything else] (m’odechah)?” What message is the recognition of a multiplicity of “hearts” in a singular individual attempting to convey?


One rabbinic interpretation of the plural “hearts” is that a human being possesses two hearts that represent the polarity between good and evil. The two hearts are the inclination toward good (yetzer hatov) and the impulse toward evil (yetzer harah). 


The rabbinic evil inclination, like the Freudian id, can be channeled positively: the sex drive, the penultimate manifestation of the yetzer harah, can be rechanneled from the sin of mindless lust to the mitzvah of procreation, and serve as the foundation of family life and marital satisfaction. As it says in Midrash: “Without the yetzer harah, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children.” (Bereishit Rabbah 9:7)


But what if we see within “hearts” a hint that even the best-intentioned humans may not have the luxury of a choice between “good” and “evil?” That the challenge of human action is not always “yes” or “no,” “right” or “wrong?”


For many years I taught the Ethics for the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning’s core program. A Philosophy major in my undergraduate years, I would point out to my learners that although “ethics and morality” are commonly referred to in a single phrase, or more egregiously, are considered synonymous in popular parlance, they are actually quite different. Morality is choosing between the clear and absolute polar opposites--right vs. wrong, good vs. evil. Only with the greatest of difficulty can the notion of morality accommodate and justify the understanding of even “two hearts.”


Ethics, on the other hand, encompasses the spectrum between- rather than beyond- good and evil. Choices between right and wrong are comparatively easy. But what if doing the right thing involves significant and predictable negative consequences? On the other hand, choosing to take an alternative action that may seem unwise in the short term, but ultimately result in a preferable outcome in the longer term.


Our hearts pull us in different directions. Besides our hearts leading us astray, as the Torah warns, even the best inclinations of our hearts tug us in different directions—the needs of spouses, our children, our parents.


Postmodernity [the time period we find ourselves in now] means we possess overlapping identities in a plurality of communities to which we are connected- all competing for our time, our concern, our loyalty and our resources. We don’t always have the luxury of helping one person without imposing upon or disadvantaging someone else.


The current corona-virus pandemic, particularly in communities most affected by COVID-19, provides a prism for viewing the distinction between morality and ethics, and the complexity of ethical decision-making.


Most of us would agree that wearing a mask is a moral action, since it has been shown to protect the health of other people and oneself, while involving no risk and only minor inconvenience to the wearer. Unscrupulous applications for and fraudulent receipt of government loans intended for struggling small businesses or aid to people who have lost their jobs, can’t pay their rent and even confronted with food insecurity, are clearly evil


Examples of ethical dilemmas abound in the present situation as well.


The value of education and socialization in child development that schools provide must be wrenchingly weighed against the risk that children and their teachers may become infected with the virus and/or may transmit it to others who are more vulnerable.


Doctors, nurses and other health workers must weigh the lifesaving work they do against the risks to themselves and the grievous loss to their families if they themselves fall victim to the virus.


Some hospital teams are being forced to choose between treating the sickest of the patients brought to them and those who have the best chance of survival


These dilemmas will become more acute in the future. When a vaccine becomes available—which at best will still be untested for long term efficacy and possible side effects-- who should be first, and who last, to receive it?


Each of us is a soul—a soul with many hearts, each of which pulls us in a different direction. 


In these trying and terrible times, may our faith, our traditions and our Source of strength help us to unite our hearts as a community, and unify our hearts.    


Shabbat Shalom


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