Consider the artichoke for a moment. It is an odd but instructive vegetable. An artichoke is prickly and surrounded by an armor of leaves protecting the soft center, the heart of the food. Boiling or steaming it loosens the protective leaves, permitting you to pick them off one by one, unwrapping the delicious gift that lies inside.
Each leaf contains a hint, a sampling of the delicious center. But even if you combined all of the tastes provided by all of the leaves on an artichoke, it would never equal the delicate green heart; only by cutting or pulling away its protective layers can one get to the treasure that lies within.
In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are instructed by Moses to circumcise their hearts in service to God. Specifically, they are instructed to “cut away the thickening around their hearts and stiffen their necks no more” (Deuteronomy 10:16). It is a powerful and direct statement made by Moses to the people. At first thought it appears horrific; Israel knows what circumcision is, and you can well imagine that every male in the assembled crowd quickly adjusted their gaze, if not their stance, at just the mention of the word. Rest assured — even back then they knew Moses was speaking in metaphor.
Biblical psychology localizes feelings and emotions in the body, and points to the heart as the organ of comprehension — thus an uncircumcised heart is a closed mind. (Think of the ring ceremony at a Jewish wedding where the rings are placed on the right index finger with a vein directly connected to the heart.)
The prophet Jeremiah even provides an example of this concept. A farmer does not plant an untilled field that weeds have overtaken and the topsoil of which is hard as stone. To make the soil productive, he plows it and rids it of weeds. So it is with human beings; the human heart and mind must be cleared of harmful growth and made receptive. Only then can ideas strike root and grow. Much like you can’t eat an artichoke till you have pealed away its hard shell, so too the Torah tells us that the heart and mind cannot undertake acts of justice and mercy until the defensive layers we build around it are cut away and broken down.
It’s not an easy thing to take down one’s own defenses, certainly when those defenses have been built over years of confrontation and hurt feelings. You build a wall to keep things out, but it just as often has the negative effect of keeping things in. Our lives are really not all that different from those of our biblical ancestors; life-styles might differ, but the basic truths of human nature and social interaction are as true in the Torah as they are today.
Our ancestors encountered a world where they were slaves to a tyrant; we may work in a job with our own taskmasters and pharaohs. In biblical times, such a situation caused Israel to be untrusting, stiff necked, hard of heart. Is the same not true for many of us? Have we not built our defenses against character assassination and image degradation so high as to harden our hearts to anyone who has even the potential to show us ill will?
For a time Israel did not want to accept the Torah because they didn’t trust that anyone, far be it God, would look with favor upon them. It took 10 plagues and the parting of the Red Sea to convince the Children of Israel to open their hearts and minds to Torah, and even then Moses was compelled to command them again in this week’s parasha not to rebuild those defenses, those walls that prevented them from letting God into their lives.
When an artichoke blossoms it is the heart that grows first; the leaves come after to protect the delicate treasure. Likewise with the field in which it is planted; sure, after years of planting and harvesting it becomes resistant to growth, and if left dormant for a season it develops its own defense against those who would seek to assault it. But the treasure is always there — behind the leaves of the artichoke, under the stone-like topsoil of a field, inside the thickened walls we build around our heart.
Our tradition teaches that one of the many purposes of the covenant between God and the Jewish people is to elevate the human experience to help us find, recognize and create holiness in our lives and those we touch.
Anything that prevents this, our parasha instructs us, must be cut away and removed so that the treasure that lies inside can be receptive once again. This week entertain a new idea, embrace an old but now distant friend, rekindle relationships long dormant with those we love and have loved, let the words of Torah, the teachings of Judaism once again be a sign upon our hands, set them as a seal upon our hearts.
Dan Moskovitz is a rabbi at Temple Judea, a Reform congregation in Tarzana. Visit his blog at jewishjournal.com/iRabbi.