Sunday, May 12, 2019

Emor (Come from the Heart)

Rabbi Shimon taught: Do not let your prayers become rote and perfunctory; rather, let them be heartfelt entreaties before the Holy One.

                        -Avot 2:13

You got to sing like you don't need the money
Love like you'll never get hurt
You got to dance like nobody's watching
It's gotta come from the heart
If you want it to work
                        -Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh, “Come from the Heart”

Once upon a time, the Baal Shem Tov approached a beautiful synagogue, peered in the door, then turned away.

His students asked: “Master, what’s wrong?”

“I cannot enter,” he replied.


“Because there are too many prayers in there.”

“But Master,” inquired the students, “Isn’t a room full of prayers a good thing?”

“Well,” said the Baal Shem Tov, “All these prayers are old and stale, so they are stuck in the building.  None of them are going up to heaven.”

How do we keep our prayers and actions from growing rote, like the ones filling up the synagogue in this Hasidic tale?  Our Torah portion for this coming Shabbat, Emor, speaks to this challenge.  In its description of the routine priestly offerings, the text teaches: “You shall take choice flour and bake it into twelve loaves . . . Place them on a pure table before the Eternal One in two rows, six to a row.”  These loaves—one for each of the twelve tribes—were known as lechem panim, often translated as “shewbread” since they were baked for display rather than eating. 

Somewhat surprisingly, the priests replaced the shewbread just once a week.  So wouldn’t they have become stale?  Talmud teaches: “A great miracle was performed with the shewbread, for when it was removed it was as fresh as it had been when it was set out" (Menachot 29a).  To which Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th century founder of modern Orthodoxy, adds: “These Talmudic words are not to be taken literally.  They convey the idea that the sanctuary was immune from the boredom and habit that afflict many religious institutions.  Rituals did not grow stale or obsolete there.”
The commentary here points to a classic tension in Jewish tradition, between keva—that which is fixed and traditional, in text and ritual—and kavvanah, which is the spirit of spontaneity and focused intention.  Much of Judaism is about following standardized practices; the challenge is to do so while still maintaining vitality.

Of course this is true in many, many areas of our lives: our jobs, our parenting, our relationships.  We are, in significant ways, creatures of routine; we often crave the order and stability that a fixed regimen provides.  At the same time, we must take care to avoid falling into ruts, where we simply go through the motions with no real passion or intensity.  To truly live is to be open to new practices and possibilities.


This wisdom lies at the heart of “Come from the Heart,” a folksong first performed by Guy Clark, and written by his wife Susanna Clark with Richard Leigh.

It’s a simple song, opening with a family lesson in love:

When I was a young boy my daddy told me
A lesson he learned, it was a long time ago
If you want to have someone to hold onto
You're going to have to learn to let go

The second—and only other—verse reiterates the first:

Now here is the one thing I keep forgetting
When everything is falling apart
In life as in love, you need to remember
There's such a thing as trying too hard

The rest is all chorus, which speaks the unadorned truth:

You got to sing like you don't need the money
Love like you'll never get hurt
You got to dance like nobody's watching
It's gotta come from your heart
If you want it to work


Spring is a good time to reinvigorate old routines.  Nature is renewing itself, and so can we.  This week, consider which aspects of your daily schedule have grown rote and try to bring a little more intention to them.  How can you act more consciously in your relationships and in your Jewish life?  In other words, how can you be more like the showbread—constant and reliable, yet ever fresh and new?

For a great version of “Come from the Heart” by Todd Snider’s band Hard Working Americans, featuring Rosanne Cash see: