Parashah of the week: Nitzavim

“Then the Eternal, your Ultimate will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your offspring — to love the Eternal, your Ultimate with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live” Deuteronomy 30:6


Rabbi Shai Held, in his essay on Ekev in The Heart of Torah, points out that this verse could be seen as contradicting an earlier one in Devarim: “You must circumcise… the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more” (Deuteronomy 10:16).

Who is to circumcise your heart, you yourself (chapter 10) or the Divine (chapter 30), and what’s involved in such a potentially painful sounding act? 

The aspiration that the thickening around our hearts be cut away is a desire for life-changing openness. The heart, the lev, in the Torah is connected to thought as well as feeling. It’s the centre of our very being. 

So, when we are commanded in Devarim 10 to cut away the thickening around our hearts, we are challenged to have the will to cultivate a profound emotional and intellectual openness. As Rosh Hashanah, and this time of returning to our best selves, is before us, we must, ourselves, cut away the thickening about our hearts by truly and powerfully wanting to change — and doing what we can to effect this. If we don’t want to change, we won’t. 

Yet, when we consider whether we need to make ourselves open or hope that this openness will be granted to us, the answer is of course: both. As Rabbi Held puts it, “In order for the human heart to open and soften both will and grace are necessary”. We hope that God will circumcise our hearts, as promised in the parashah.

Sometimes we need the help. We need to want to change, yet the desire to force change and the assumption that we alone are to effect it can profoundly limit our change.

The cultivation of openness requires a letting go, a willingness to be open to the moment and to encounters with wisdom, other people and the Divine. We might schedule the moments and practices that allow for such an openness. We find the will to let go.

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