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Our Hearts' Desires



Shabbat Ekev 5777 | August 12, 2017
Robin and I were out to lunch while running some errands. We’re still learning our way around the area. We asked our waitress if she knew the zip code of where we were because we wanted to look up an address for our next stop after lunch. She was very polite. She came back with the information and asked if we were from out of town. We said, “Yes, we’ve just moved here from Baltimore.” She smiled knowingly and said, “I thought there was an eastern vibe about you.”
I have no idea what that means! Especially since everyone in Baltimore thought we were very “California.” Whatever they think that is. Truth is this. We all hold to impressions of people we meet without actually knowing them. It’s human nature. Social psychologists call it “person perception.”
We form impressions and draw conclusions. When you or I meet someone new, we make an initial impression. Shopping in a store you or I may have a first thought about the sales clerk. Maybe you imagine things about people waiting in a line with you. Reacting to a person we don’t really know, sometimes we make a snap judgment. Other times we jump to a biased, if not false, perception.
All of us understand. It takes some time and effort to build genuine relationships. Think about the deep and revealing conversations you’ve had with the people who know you best. Real and honest heart to heart talks. I imagine there are more than a few but not so many, either.
Consider what life events drew you close to people you know well. Maybe you worked closely and for long hours on a significant project or challenge. I remember many late-night conversations after working with someone who is now a dear friend. Our time together and the topics we spoke about created our continuing bond.
Or, more sadly, perhaps together with someone else you came through some difficulty or unfortunate trauma. Rebuilding, renewing, grieving, healing, helping, and supporting: these are the gerunds of strong and enduring relationships.
According to Moses’ account, this is the method God chose. Freeing the slaves from Egypt, as they wandered in the wilderness toward Israel, God decided to get to know the people through hardships.
Moses addresses the Israelites as they anticipate entering the Promised Land. “Remember the long way that the Eternal your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that God might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep God’s commandments or not.
Moses is aware that there was a more direct route from Egypt to Israel. Maybe the people were, too. Rashi suggests a reason for the circuitous, forty-year route. God was being kind. Keeping newly freed slaves away from the temptation of returning to Egypt. Maimonides thinks God was buying time. The hardship of wandering is preparation for the tasks that lie ahead entering a new land and building a new society.
Other voices echo this sense. God’s purpose in testing the people by hardship in the wilderness is to let them show their mettle, to see how individuals respond to their situation. Or as the Torah states, to learn what is in every person’s heart.
Now there’s a challenge, to know what is in each other’s hearts. Close enough and open enough to appreciate a loved one’s desires or a friend’s yearnings. Arriving at a place of mutual understanding, preferably without sharing hardship. Discovering each other instead through life’s joys and opportunities.
In faith, some of us may believe as the Torah states that God knows what’s in our hearts. For the moment, I’m curious if we can.
I believe God is present in the world through us. God comes to know our hearts as we show them to each other, through our responses to life’s challenges and joys, through our behaviors in the world, and through our amazement at the gift of life.
My faith trusts that God is intrinsic to our being and our world, within our lives and not external to them. Knowing our hearts, how vulnerable and frail we are, how needy we can feel, God grants our world and each one of us the resources, talents, and gifts to succeed.
This morning I encourage us to open ourselves up, to think not only of what God may know, but also of what our hearts desire. Moses was preparing ancient Israel to enter their land. We have to prepare ourselves to enter into and sustain Jewish life today.
So, let me ask you, and answer for myself, a question. Entering the synagogue, celebrating our Jewish traditions, joining in community with others, what does your heart desire from your religious heritage and belonging? What do you seek from your religious engagement for the realization of your Jewish self?
Let me share my answer. Here’s what my heart desires to fulfill my Jewish needs and interests. I look forward to learning the answers of your hearts when you’re ready to share them with me.
A community of adherents and peers who share religious values and a vocabulary about God and the purpose of life - both of which are intellectually rooted in Jewish history while reflecting contemporary experience.
Comfort for when my life is difficult, challenge for when my life is comfortable, and concepts for defining my life’s meaning.
Cultivation of my conscience and common sense so that I ask questions, seek answers, make choices, and work for social justice inspired by the demands of my faith, my hopes, and the dignity all people merit.
I’ll restate it. Being in community, sharing in comfort with others, accepting the challenges my beliefs demand of me, considering concepts for meaning with honesty and thoughtfulness, listening to my conscience, and trying to respond respectfully to the people I meet. That’s the religious vision my heart desires.
This is the question I ask you to consider. If anything, what do you want from your religion, and from your synagogue, and from your participation in Jewish life, that may help you find fulfillment and meaning through the course of your days?
Don’t rely on people’s perceptions. Strive to answer this question for yourself. In conversation, activity, and through hardship if necessary, let me and others know what’s in your heart. By the way, I think that’s actually how God knows, too. God comes to know our hearts as we show them to each other.
© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
Sat, March 2 2024 22 Adar I 5784