Sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong decade. I am not going to tell you which decade I was born in because I already get enough comments questioning whether I am old enough to be a rabbi!! I will say though that sometimes I wish I grew up in is the 60’s. The 60’s with its free and open culture, its subversive music, and its strong critique of authority. So every once in a while, I go online and listen to music from the sixties. The other day, I was on a Rolling Stones website surfing through some of their song lists and I came across a song called “Heart of Stone.” I was intrigued by the title, so I clicked on the song to listen. The refrain, sung by Mick Jagger, was as follows: “You’ll never break, you’ll never break this heart of stone.”
Each and every one of us knows what it feels like to have a hard heart, a heart of stone. Sometimes the heart of stone is necessary just to keep us emotionally stable and to allow us to go on. But Yom Kippur is the one day of the year that we must not have a heart of stone.
In the next 24 hours we are going to recite the Full Vidui – the confession, 8 times. The second confession reads על חטא שחטאנו לפניך באמוץ הלב - “God, we confess before you all of those sins we have committed against you through hardness of the heart.” On Yom Kippur, we cannot have a hard heart. We remove our hearts of stone and we try to soften our hearts. So I have two very simple questions that I would like to focus on this evening:
1.) what does it mean to have a hard heart, a heart of stone?
2.) How, on this evening, can I soften my heart?
What is a Hard Heart?
I would argue that there are actually two types of hardness of heart. The first kind of hardness of heart is what I would call “interpersonal hardness of heart.” A hardness of heart that occurs between one individual and another. This hardness of heart can be illustrated with one of my favorite stories from the Talmud.
The great Rabbi Eliezer son of Shimon, a rabbi from the 2nd century, was riding on his donkey. He was in a great mood because he had just finished an amazing session of Torah Study. He was also feeling a little conceited for he had just discovered some profound Torah insights. So he was riding on his donkey and he chances upon an exceedingly ugly man. The ugly man greets the rabbi. The rabbi is so taken aback by his ugliness. The ugly man might have smelled a bit, he might have been homeless; and the contrast between the rabbi’s dignified torah session and the ugly man’s problems was just too much for the rabbi. The rabbi responds, “How ugly are you, perhaps all the people of your city are as ugly as you?”
The ugly man, without missing a beat, responds, “I don’t know, but go tell the Craftsman Who made me, how ugly is this vessel that You made.”
The rabbi immediately realizes that he has committed a horrible sin. He begs forgiveness for his callousness, for his hardness, for his heart of stone. The ugly man eventually forgives the rabbi and the rabbi enters the study hall to share with his students the profound lesson that he has learned:
“A person should always be soft like a reed and not hard like a cedar tree,” The Rabbi desclares, “For this reason, the reed merited to have the קולמוס the quill come from it to write the Torah, Teffilin, and Mezuzot.”
We usually value the hardness and the strength of the Cedar Tree. It symbolizes strength, confidence, and the will to see something through. But this story teaches us that the softness of the reed is more valued. Flexibility, the ability to move with the wind, to adapt to ugly and difficult situations, to be soft and to be empathetic.
It is certainly a human tendency to have hardness of heart, but on Yom Kippur we say על חטא שחטאנו לפניך באמוץ הלב - we confess before You Oh God for those sins that we have committed with a hardness of heart.
The story of the Rabbi and the Ugly Man is one type of hardness of heart, which I am calling “Interpersonal hardness of heart.” But there is a second type of hardness of heart, one that might even be more harmful on Yom Kippur. The second hardness could be called “intellectual or spiritual hardness of heart.” It is often a crime against God and it is always a crime against our own souls.
There is well know example from the Torah of someone who had this kind of hardness of heart. Do you know who I am referring to? Pharaoh. The Torah describes Pharaoh’s heart as being כבד, חזק and קשה. All of these Hebrew terms denote that Pharaoh had a hard heart, a heart of stone. When God sends Moshe and Aron to Pharaoh with the message, “let my people go”, Pharoah’s heart hardened and he did not listen. He was so entrenched in his Egyptian Pagan beliefs, that his heart was not open to hear the word of God. His heart was also not receptive to the moral-abolitionist message of Moshe. His heart was so closed that he could not see an economically viable Egypt that did not depend on the subjugation of the Jewish People.
על חטא שחטאנו לפניך באמוץ הלב – Oh God, we confess to you those sins that, like Pharaoh, we have committed through hardness of the heart.
How can we soften our hearts and be more open to God and Jewish Wisdom on this Yom Kippur? There is a powerful story about a Young Jewish man. It was Yom Kippur 1913. The young Jewish man was about to convert to Christianity but before his conversion, he decided to attend one more Kol Nidrei Service. He chose a small orthodox synagogue in the small German town called Kassel. And something happened to him on that night. He was so moved by that service that he decided not only to remain Jewish but to dedicate his life to Jewish studies. That young man was none other then Franz Rosensweig who became not only an observant Jew but, arguably, the most important Jewish Philospher of the 20th century. His major work, “The Star of Redemption” is one of the best explanations of the three most important concepts in Judaism; Creation, Revelation, and Redemption. That Yom Kippur service in Kassel, Germany, not only changed Rosensweig, it changed the course of Jewish intellectual history forever.
The Kol Nidrei Service has the potential to transform us and to help us transform the Jewish People. But are our hearts open to the experience? Have we hardened our hearts so much, like Pharaoh, that we just say, “Ahh, it just another Yom Kippur. I had one last year, I’ll have one next year and they never really change me.”
We need to remove our hearts of stone. We need to remove the cynicism. Its not only about Yom Kippur its about the entire year. How many times do we learn about a new kind of religious experience, a new way to encounter the divine, and we approach it with cynicism. “it will never work, we say, why should I try something new?”
If we don’t soften our hearts, if we do not open ourselves up for new experiences, we will never grow. A heart of stone might be strong, fortified and protected but it cannot expand. It cannot grow. It cannot reach new heights. On this Yom Kippur, we need to promise God and ourselves that we will remain open, just like Rosensweig, to experience something that will transform ourselves and help us transform the Jewish People.
על חטא שחטאנו לפניך באמוץ הלב – Oh God, we confess those sins that we have committed against you through hardness of the heart.
There is a beautiful chapter in the book of Ezekiel that powerfully describes the softening of the heart. Ezekiel describes a time when the Jewish People were so ensnared in their sinful ways that they couldn’t even think about doing teshuva. So God takes the first step. And God’s action is described in one of the most beautiful pesukim in Tanach:
(כו) וְנָתַתִּי לָכֶם לֵב חָדָשׁ וְרוּחַ חֲדָשָׁה אֶתֵּן בְּקִרְבְּכֶם וַהֲסִרֹתִי אֶת לֵב הָאֶבֶן מִבְּשַׂרְכֶם וְנָתַתִּי לָכֶם לֵב בָּשָׂר:
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you. I will remove the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Ezekiel Chapter 36:26
It is true that the heart of stone is strong fortified and protected, and the heart of flesh is soft and vulnerable. But we prefer the soft and vulnerable heart of flesh because the heart of stone is dead but the heart of flesh is living. With all of its weakness, it still beats. And with all of its vulnerabilities, it can still grow.
Allow me to conclude with a confession and a prayer:
על חטא שחטאתי לפניך באמוץ הלב
Oh God I confess all of those sins that I have committed against You through hardness of the heart. And I promise you that on this Yom Kippur I am going to try to soften my heart. I am going to try to remove my heart of stone that separates me from other people and the heart of stone that separates me from my own soul and from You. But I ask you Oh God, that if I cannot remove my heart of stone on this Yom Kippur, that You help me out. That You purify me, that You put a new spirit within me and remove my heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh so that I can do my service to humanity and to You.
Please join me in this confession and commit together with me for the next 24 hours to have an open heart.