Your Heart Needs to Work Harder (Yom Kippur Morning 5782, September 16, 2021)
On this Yom Kippur day of repentance and confession, I have something to share with you all. It may not come as much of a surprise, but I do not like to exercise. I am not, as they say, athletically-inclined. The closest I ever got to a regular physical routine was my first year in college when I was a coxswain for the Freshman Crew team. We were supposed to run all the way from campus down to the boathouse for practice and then run all the way back. Which I did. Some of the time. But beyond that, I used to say I’d only run if someone was chasing me.
So you can imagine my reaction when my wife suggested that we follow a fitness regime this summer, something from an app that would guide us through a progressive program balancing walking and running, gradually building up our stamina and strength over several weeks. I was skeptical, but my love for my wife far outweighs my dislike of exercise, so I agreed, with one caveat. Before we’d start the running program, we’d just walk for a week. I figured that was easy enough, and maybe I could stretch it to another week, and another. Karen agreed and so my new exercise career began. At the end of the last of the week’s walking sessions, hardly having broken a sweat, I probably said something dumb like, “Oh, this isn’t so bad!” And Karen, with both a bit of disdain and great wisdom said, “Your heart needs to work harder!” And so we started the running program the next day. And I got a sermon topic for the High Holy Days, an important aspiration for all of us for this new year, “Your heart needs to work harder.”
Physiologically, we know this to be true for aerobic exercise as a form of cardiovascular conditioning. We want our hearts to be in good shape for pumping blood and delivering oxygen throughout our body. It’s not that my heart wasn’t working when I was walking. Any exercise is better than none, as I have been told by physicians in each state where I have lived, trying to convince me to do more. But my heart can always beat stronger, pump the blood better, deliver the oxygen more efficiently. My heart can work harder.
This is true, too, speaking metaphorically and metaphysically. We want our hearts to be open, accepting, and understanding, a source of compassion and kindness throughout our lives. And for many of us, for much of the time, this is true. Yet we can always strengthen those spiritual muscles with exercise and conditioning. As we enter this new year, as we seek to return to our best selves, let us commit to making our hearts work harder.
How do we do this? We can be guided in our heart-work by the teaching of the great Rabbi Hillel. He teaches, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, then when?” Hillel’s wisdom indicates several ways of strengthening our hearts.
In saying, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Hillel stresses the importance of self-care. Let’s take that to mean care of our bodies and care of our souls. This is the other reason why I agreed to an exercise program this summer, besides my love of my wife. The medieval teacher and physician, Moses Maimonides, pointed out that we have a responsibility to safeguard our physical bodies. He wrote, “To keep one’s body healthy and in good condition is part of what it means to walk in God’s ways,” for it can be difficult to focus on God “when one is sick. Therefore, we have a duty to avoid whatever is injurious to the body, and to cultivate habits conducive to health and strength.” Maimonides viewed taking care of your physical self as a spiritual obligation. While I don’t know if that’s what people mean when they say they exercise religiously, I know that Maimonides would have approved of last February’s TBS Heart Healthy Challenge, sponsored by our Sisterhood and Brotherhood. 500 fitness activities in 15 days was a good effort by our community to take care of our bodies, and therefore our souls as well.
In addition to our physical health, we have a responsibility to tend to our mental wellbeing. Caring for mental health has a long history in Judaism. When a ruach hara’ah, an evil sentiment or melancholy, riles the first king of Israel, King Saul, he is soothed by music therapy until the feelings subside. In the Talmud, Rabbi Eleazar battles a bout of depression and is helped through it by his friend, Rabbi Yochanan. Our prayer for healing, Mi Sheberach l’Cholim, asks God to grant r’fuat hanefesh, the healing of the spirit, along with r’fuat haguf, the healing of the body. The two are intimately connected. Without the other, there can be no complete healing, refuah shleymah. Many of us do work at taking care of ourselves, body and soul. And many of us do not do enough. Our hearts just need to work harder!
The second part of Hillel’s teaching, “And if I am only for myself, what am I?” speaks to our compassion for others. The Torah portion we will read this afternoon points towards a reason why heart-strengthening in this regard is especially necessary today. “Lo tisna et achicha bil’vavecha,” it says in Leviticus 19:17, “do not hate your kinsfolk in your heart.” We know that if there’s a commandment NOT to do something, it’s a safe bet that people were doing it at the time the Torah was codified. Why else warn us against it? From the fact that the Torah is explicitly calling out this action, it seems clear that hatred of others was a concern. If our hearts aren’t spiritually strong, if they aren’t pumping out compassion and kindness, it is easier to succumb to the disease of hatred. Hence the Torah’s warning to us.
Sadly, using our hearts for hate is still part of the human condition and too prevalent in our world today. According to statistics recently released by the Department of Justice, the year 2020 saw the largest number of hate crimes reported since 2008. Hate crimes are up an astounding 42% since 2014. Nearly 62% of all hate crimes are motivated by race or ethnicity, with religion and sexual orientation ranked second and third in bias motivation. Attacks against African Americans are the largest single category, though attacks against Asian Americans jumped significantly. We know too well that antisemitism has had a resurgence in American in recent years, with the ADL recording the third highest number on record of attacks against Jews this past year. The truth is that hate crimes are regularly underreported, which means that all of these numbers are likely even higher than they seem.
But it isn’t just hate crimes that mark the anti-Torah phenomenon of hatred in our hearts. Segments of our society have embraced the notion that those who don’t agree with us are not just misguided or mistaken, they are WRONG and EVIL and the SOURCE OF ALL THAT IS BAD in the world. Disagreements of policy or opinion devolve into deep animosity. Talking-head television pundits and politicians encourage this binary approach; you’re either with us or against us. The goal becomes the decimation of the other side, not understanding, compromise, or reconciliation. Hatred of the other in our hearts is all too real in our society today.
To the perpetrators of hate crimes and spewers of self-righteous ideologically exclusive certainty, I say, “Your heart needs to work harder.” When we strengthen our hearts, when they work harder, we can understand what others think, believe, or are. We can feel what others feel, growing in empathy. We can search for, and find, the humanity in each other, including those with whom we disagree.
Instead of hatred, the Torah portion we just read this morning tells us what should reside instead in our hearts. “Ki karov eilecha hadavar m’od, b’ficha uvilvav’cha la’asoto,” “[This Instruction] is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.”  The Torah’s values, its lessons, its guidelines for our lives – these are not far away on some mountaintop or across some fathomless ocean. They live in us, in our mouths and in our hearts. They’re right there! We can take the Torah’s teachings of kindness and compassion, of understanding and empathy, of recognizing the tzelem Elohim, the reflection of the Divine in each human being, and let them influence what we say and what we do. These are the things that make our hearts strong. And their use and exercise can only make our hearts stronger.
Looking at our world today, there are any number of instances where our hearts may already be responding with kindness and compassion to prompt empathy and action, and where, whatever we are doing, we can do a little more. I’ll name three examples, though I’m certain you can name others. Please note: my citing of these examples is not intended to be political, but humanitarian. While there are political implications inherent in each example, I’ll ask you to set aside your politics for the moment and listen, not with your mind, but with your heart.
First: it is estimated that 38 to 42 million Americans are affected currently by food insecurity and hunger. That includes 12 to 13 million children. The pandemic and its economic impact threatened to increase these numbers dramatically. But initial data seems to indicate that the different stimulus checks and aid packages of the past 18 months, including the increased funding of SNAP benefits, successfully blunted the feared rise in food insecurity and even decreased the number of people in need of assistance. And yet, we know that there are still millions who rely on food pantries like LCAC in order to feed themselves and their families. So many of us heed Deuteronomy’s teaching “patoach tiftach et yadcha,” to open our hands to those in need, contributing regularly to our TBS food collections, especially the High Holy Day food drive that BeaSTY is conducting right now. That’s great. And, we know that, whatever we are doing, we can do just a little bit more, help just a little bit more, feed just a few more people. Our hearts just need to work a little harder.
A second example: There are about 50,000 Afghan refugees who are expected to settle ultimately in the United States. They are primarily people “who assisted the United States government or who might be targeted by the Taliban.” Many are arriving with little more than a suitcase and a hope for a better life. Some number of them will remain in the greater Washington, DC, area. HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), which is the Jewish community’s leading refugee resettlement organization, and Lutheran Social Services are working together to meet all of the needs that these refugees will have.  We know the heart of the stranger and the refugee, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and the Torah tells us to care for them as we would for ourselves. A number of our TBS congregants have been in touch with HIAS and are exploring ways we might be able to help as individuals and, perhaps, as a congregation. We know that we can do more to express our compassion and concern and to help these fellow human beings. Our hearts just need to work a little harder.
A third example: This past spring saw eleven days of fighting between Hamas, and Israel. Hamas, a terrorist organization dedicated to Israel’s destruction, launched over 4300 rockets towards Israel, indiscriminately targeting civilian areas. Terrified Israelis scrambled into bomb shelters, sometimes with as little as fifteen seconds notice. In response, Israel conducted massive air bombardments against Hamas fighters and their positions. Hamas often conceals its rocket launchers, tunnels, and command centers within and around the civilian population. While targeting the terrorists, the Israeli reprisals also killed and wounded innocent Palestinians and caused great destruction of Gazan infrastructure. While there is no moral equivalence between the rocket attacks of a terrorist group targeting civilians and the military bombings designed to root out and stop them, the loss of life and property in Gaza was deeply disturbing and upsetting from a humanitarian perspective. Surely our hearts are large enough to feel the pain and suffering borne by innocent Palestinians and Israelis. Surely our hearts are strong enough to have compassion for the human beings affected on all sides of the conflict wherever they dwell. Surely we can empathize with the human beings implanted with the tzelem Elohim, the divine image, whether they are cowering in a bomb shelter in Sderot or an apartment in Gaza City. If we could not, if we were unable to hold that compassion for all of God’s creatures, then I would say that our hearts would need to work harder.
Hillel’s admonition, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” prompts us to reject divisive and hateful speech and actions. It compels us to embrace the values and teachings of Torah in our hearts. For those who are hungry, for refugees, for Israelis and Palestinians, we seek to have our hearts open, accepting, and understanding, as a source of compassion and kindness. Just this morning we heard the prophet Isaiah proclaim the religious responsibilities of our hearts. We are called upon to unlock the shackles of injustice, to share our bread with the hungry, to clothe and shelter those most in need. However hard our hearts have been working, we can always do a little bit more.
The final phrase of Rabbi Hillel’s teaching notes the timeliness of our efforts to strengthen our hearts: “If not now, then when?” Friends, Yom Kippur is a time to begin again, a time to renew ourselves. We think of what we have done and what we are sorry for, and we ask for forgiveness. We think of what we have not yet done and what we need to do, and we pledge to follow through. We are guided by the Jewish values that dwell in our hearts, so close to us, embedded within us. We guard ourselves against hatred. We strengthen our hearts with each act of compassion and kindness to others and to ourselves. We aspire for our hearts to be accepting and understanding. As we open our hearts on this Yom Kippur day, we know our hearts can always work harder. May God grant us the strength to make it so.
And let us say, Amen.
 https://www.everydayhealth.com/fitness/workouts/why-you-need-aerobic-exercise.aspx  Pirkei Avot 1:14  Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot 4:1  1 Samuel 16:23. See https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-power-music/201704/the-world-s-first-music-therapist  Talmud Bavli, Brachot 5b  There is a nice, brief encapsulation of this at https://rac.org/jewish-values-and-mental-health  Leviticus 19:17.  See https://www.justice.gov/hatecrimes/hate-crime-statistics#piechart-description; https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/hate-crimes-fbi-2020-asian-black/2021/08/30/28bede00-09a7-11ec-9781-07796ffb56fe_story.html; https://www.npr.org/2021/08/31/1032932257/hate-crimes-reach-the-highest-level-in-more-than-a-decade  Deuteronomy 30:14  https://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america; https://www.politico.com/news/2021/05/07/hunger-rates-plummet-after-stimulus-485604  Deuteronomy 15:11  https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/06/us/afghan-refugees-volunteers.html  https://www.wsj.com/articles/afghan-refugees-in-the-u-s-how-theyre-vetted-where-theyre-going-and-how-to-help-11630677004; https://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/grant-funding/resettlement-agencies  Leviticus 19:34  https://mfa.gov.il/MFA/ForeignPolicy/Terrorism/Palestinian/Pages/Operation-Guardian-of-the-Walls-10-May-2021.aspx  Isaiah 58:6-7