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Kol Nidrei 5783: Thank You For Bringing Me Your Heart

Rabbi Shira Stern, D.Min., BCC

One Friday night five years ago, on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I decided to stay home. My husband Don - yes, also a rabbi -  led the early Shabbat service. Afterwards, he looked…  anxious? Thoughtful? Puzzled. He described feeling “not right.” He indicated there was some pressure on his chest and tightness in his jaw. We waited. It didn’t get better, so we opted for the ER, figuring, why not have the staff just tell us that this was nothing to worry about?
 
They didn’t. Instead, five minutes after going through triage and a quick EKG, they hooked him up with an IV, called in a cardiologist and decided that since he was in a-fib and his pulse was a pounding 170 beats per minute, resting, they would admit him. I have spent a great deal of time in hospitals, and this was quick even by my experience. Too quick.
 
They asked if there was anything significant about this time of year. Yes, a little thing called the High Holidays, we said, which couldn’t very well be postponed until a later time when he was feeling better. I remember thinking: he’s coming back to prep for Yom Kippur. And sermons. And a 12-hour day leading services.  I had a sudden thought: does he really need a stress test after all that?
 
Once I started breathing again I could focus on other things, like the extraordinary care Don (and I) was (were) receiving. And although the great news that he had stabilized was well communicated, the one line I will never forget came not from a doctor or a nurse or a chaplain but from the young man who oversaw his echocardiogram procedure. After some friendly banter before and post-procedure, he said to Don, “Thank you for bringing me your heart.” 
 
I thought a great deal about that phrase, “bringing me your heart,” because it was the perfect metaphor for me five years ago, almost to the day, and for this summer, when once again we were faced with another life threatening and more complicated procedure to return him to health. He’s here tonight, so it turned out very well. 
 
For us, though, for tonight, for Kol Nidrei, this line resonates as well,  because what would God want from us tonight, but that we should bring God our hearts?
 
What better gift could we offer tonight, to God and - to one another? The only question is how to do it? And what might happen if we do?
 
When we were wandering in the desert, God told Moses to build a tabernacle - a sacred place in which God might dwell. And to do so, God asked US to make offerings but only if we were moved to do it. To create the Holy Tabernacle - God wanted us to bring the most precious thing we had to offer: our intentional hearts.
 
Bringing our hearts means opening ourselves to being vulnerable.
Bringing our hearts means opening ourselves up, period. What are we really feeling? What secrets are we holding back even from ourselves?  Bringing our hearts means offering the most precious thing we have. 
 
In Exodus, Chapter 35, we are commanded through Moses to:
 
 “Take from among you gifts to God; everyone whose heart so moves him (kol nediv libo) shall bring them.” (35:10) 
 
"And let all among you who are skilled (kol chacham lev) – who are wise of heart – come and make all that God has commanded.” (Exodus 35:5) 
 
(35:21) "And everyone whose heart was raised (kol ish asher naso libo) was instructed to build the Tabernacle.

Three phrases, all connected to offerings of the heart, the lev.  
 
I love the first phrase, kol nediv libo – “every one whose heart so moves him.” On the surface, it means one who gives graciously and generously, without being prodded to do so. Someone who won’t ask for anything in return because, frankly, otherwise it’s just bartering. I’ll sacrifice my gold, or my turtle dove or my side of beef so God can make me… what? Happy? Successful? Release my sins? But if you dive a little bit deeper, it means allowing your heart to help govern your actions. I say “help” because often we hear people say, “The heart wants what the heart wants” to justify behavior that they know breaches boundaries. 
 
What I mean is allowing our heart to inform our decisions, so that when we do make a choice, heart and mind are in sync. 
 
The second phrase intrigues me even more: kol chacham libo, which means, “all who have a wise heart.” How can a heart be wise? A heart can be full, as in of love; a heart can feel tight with worry; a heart can break with sorrow; a heart can cement relationships by encouraging us to bond with those – or with that which – we love. 
 
But wisdom lives in the brain – not the heart. Or so I thought. 
 
That dedicated medical technician at Jersey Shore understood something so well that he helped me read this passage in a new light. Despite the science of the echocardiogram and all the technical aspects that he had to master, he understood that the hearts he was examining were so much more than disembodied organs. These hearts that were brought to him moved people to tears, made others happy and made others proud. Five years ago and again this July,  I truly understood the meaning of a wise heart.
 
We can neither function solely by thinking nor solely by feeling. When wisdom and the heart are combined, we interact with life fully and completely and successfully. We touch and are touched. 
 
But it’s the third phrase that I appreciated the most: "And everyone whose heart was raised” - (kol ish asher naso libo).

The great medieval scholar Maimonides taught that “All those whose hearts were raised” refers to those who were involved in carrying out the actual building of the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting and the Ark that housed the two tablets of commandments, as opposed to those who provided the donations. Remember for a moment that we had just spent 480 years as slaves in Egypt, and if we managed to survive long enough to be part of the Exodus, we probably didn’t have degrees in mechanical engineering or artistic design. And yet, and yet, people volunteered to build and design and decorate, finding the ability to do so within themselves. God inspired their hearts, raised them up so that the Israelites could manage anything that was asked of them. But it wasn’t just that these people were able to work on the tabernacle: it’s that they wanted a way to help and found it in creating something sacred and special, a way to give of themselves for the good of the community. That was what was meant in the phrase “people whose hearts were raised.” There was intentionality. We do the same when we look for opportunities to make our community here better, to improve each year over the last. We can come, this year, with hearts raised, hands ready. 

Everyone whose hearts so moved them, everyone with hearts of wisdom, everyone who hearts were raised, created something holy and beautiful and lasting in the arid desert. That’s why you and I are here today.
 
Imagine that. Creating something beautiful out of  just the things we could grab on the night of the Exodus as we fled from Pharoah.  The only things the Israelites could offer God wholeheartedly were their hearts, but that was enough. God would help with the rest. 
 
Which is why, on Yom Kippur, all God asks is that we offer up our own hearts. 
 
There is one more lesson I learned this Shabbat from the echo-tech. While he thanked Don for bringing him his heart, he had no idea that in that instant, he gave both of us a piece of his own. We will always remember that human kindness given in the sterile environment of a hospital lab. We will always have a piece of his heart in ours.
 
On Yom Kippur, before we come to God to offer our hearts, we have to have done so first with the other relationships in our lives. While we are not obligated to achieve the impossible – because some relationships cannot be healed by the wisest of hearts – we are expected to do our best to lift up our hearts to one another: to ask forgiveness, to offer forgiveness, to redeem the relationships that we cherished but let fall by the wayside in our hectic pace of life, to find ourselves moved to reach out to one another without being prodded.
 
I have never seen a perfect heart – perfection isn’t humanly possible. In fact, people may think that the perfect heart is the one that has no flaws to mar the smoothness, no stress to make it malfunction, no relationship tears that leave scars.
 
I actually believe the best kind of heart has all of those “imperfections” I referred to as flaws. Which is why the story I’ll finish with is one of my very favorites. It’s called, “The Perfect Heart.”
 
The Perfect Heart (origin unknown to me)

“One day a young man was standing in the middle of the town proclaiming that he had the most beautiful heart in the whole valley. A large crowd gathered and they all admired his heart, for it was perfect. There was not a mark nor a flaw in it or on it.

Yes, they all agreed, it truly was the most beautiful heart they had ever seen. The young man was very proud and boasted more loudly about his beautiful heart. 

Suddenly, an old man appeared at the front of the crowd and said, "Why, your heart is not nearly as beautiful as mine." The crowd and the young man looked at the old man's heart. It was beating strongly, but it was full of scars, it had places where pieces had been removed and other pieces put in, but they didn't fit quite right and there were several jagged edges. In fact, in some places there were deep gouges where whole pieces were missing.

The people stared. How can he say his heart is more beautiful? The young man looked at the old man's heart and saw its state and laughed. "You must be joking," he said. "Compare your heart with mine. Mine is perfect and yours is a mess of scars and tears."

"Yes," said the old man, "yours is perfect-looking, but I would never trade with you. You see, every scar represents a person to whom I have given my love. I tear out a piece of my heart and give it to them, and often they give me a piece of their heart which fits into the empty place in my heart, but because the pieces aren't exactly the same, I have some rough edges, which I cherish, because they remind me of the love we shared. Sometimes I have given pieces of my heart away, and the other person hasn't returned a piece of his heart to me. These are the empty gouges – giving love is taking a chance. Although these gouges are painful, they stay open, reminding me of the love I have for these people too. And I hope, someday, they may return and fill the space I have waiting. So now do you see what true beauty is?"

The young man stood silently with tears running down his cheeks. He walked up to the old man, reached into his perfect, young and beautiful heart, and ripped a piece out. He offered it to the old man with trembling hands. The old man took his offering, placed it in his heart and then took a piece from his old, scarred heart and placed it in the wound in the young man's heart. It fit, but not perfectly, as there were some jagged edges. The young man looked at his heart, not perfect anymore but more beautiful than ever, since love from the old man's heart flowed into his. They embraced and walked away. 

When that echo technician offered a piece of his heart to a man he had never met and would not see again, he not only healed the part of us that was scared, he opened up a much deeper understanding of  Yom Kippur for both of us. 
 

Wed, December 7 2022 13 Kislev 5783