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What Makes A Jewish Heart?

“Meet our son, Lev!” I proudly declared in the hospital hallway nearly eight years ago. “Zev?” asked one excited relative. “No, Lev. L-E-V. It’s the Hebrew word for heart.” And so began a lifetime of telling-then-spelling Lev’s name. These days, we don’t pause between the two. “This is my son, Lev. L-E-V.” He does it, too, “Hi, I’m Lev. L-E-V.” Perhaps we’re inconsiderate parents, giving our child a name that people don’t get at first. But we couldn’t resist. Lev means heart and giving him that name told the world that we intended to pour our hearts into our child.

I enjoy Valentine’s Day because of the hearts that pop up all over the place. Red and pink, filled with chocolates or covering a card, each heart is an excuse to think about Lev and the boy that he’s growing into. As everyone knows, the hearts that appear around Valentine’s Day symbolize love: star crossed lovers, desire and passion, romance and grand gestures, dating and marriage. This is a Western conception of the heart. But in Jewish tradition the heart means something very different.

In biblical times ancient Israelites thought of the heart in much the same way we think about the mind. The heart was the seat of wisdom, as the Psalmist wrote, “Teach us to number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.” In Exodus we learn that generosity, too, resides in the heart. “Men and women whose hearts moved them brought” (Ex 35:22) gifts to help construct the mishkan, the portable Temple we used in the desert. The heart also contained bravery. “Look to the LORD; be strong and of brave heart!” (Psalm 27). For our ancient biblical ancestors the heart was a profound center of wisdom, skill, generosity, and bravery.

In Medieval Hebrew, the metaphoric heart took on many of the more Western connotations. In Medieval Spain, Yehuda Halevi famously wrote longingly of Jerusalem: “Libi bamizrach” “My heart is in the East.” His words simply capture the longing that the heart feels. Modern Hebrew, too, associates the heart with the love and emotion described in greeting cards and printed on candy sweet hearts. In other words, the romantic Western conception of heart.

Loving relationships start out with such a Western heart: filled with emotion that overwhelms the mind. Whether the passion of a new romance or the overwhelming feeling for a new child, emotion defines new love. Then time passes. Passionate romance matures into marriage and partnership. The love of children refines and develops as we watch the babies we once cradled turn into people in their own right. The biblical notions of the heart then become more salient. The relationships require not only love and passion: but wisdom and skill, patience and generosity, and a bit of bravery as well. This need not cancel out the romance, the blind love, but instead supplement it, add to it, make it deeper and more meaningful.

When I see Lev trying a new sport for the first time, I see his bravery. As he masters a math trick, I see his skill. When I see him pause before taking a risk, I see his nascent wisdom. When he gives his sister a turn with a toy, I see his generosity. And, at the same time, just looking at him still fills my heart with love and compassion. Lev is growing into his name by personifying so many of the traits that we associate with the heart: both the traits of the West and the traits of the Bible.

On this Valentine’s Day, surrounded by so many hearts, may we each learn to bring out all of the heart’s traits, both biblical and romantic.

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