High Holidays

HIGH HOLIDAYS FEATURE Turning a heart of stone into a heart of flesh


LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Was your father a rabbi?

When I tell people that I wanted to be a rabbi from the time I was 4 years old, they always ask me that same question.

No, my father made women’s clothing, but he was my rabbi.

When I was a child, my father would read me tales of biblical heroes and prophets. These were my bedtime stories. He taught me how to pray, to love the melodies of prayer and how to sing in harmony with him as we’d walk hand in hand down the street. While my friends stayed home on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons in their pajamas, my father would take me to synagogue, and I would sit beside him and play with the strands of his prayer shawl.

Just two years after my bat mitzvah, when I was 15, my parents were walking down the street one night. A man approached them with a gun, demanded money, then shot my father.

My father died and my whole world came crashing down.

My father’s murder was an earthquake that upended my life. Just a day before I was a happy teenage girl, a curious, fun-loving kid living in an amazing family. And then my world was shattered and I learned too soon what it was like to have a heart of stone. I was filled with anger.

I hated myself for being weak and vulnerable. I hated my mother for not being strong for me. I hated my father for abandoning me. I hated my friends for having trivial concerns about hairdos and parties. I hated the Sabbath and all the holidays for reminding me of beautiful days that were dead now. I hated the prayers with all their false promises about all the great things God does. Really? Where was God? I hated God for doing nothing.

This is the vow I made when I was 15: “I’m on my own now. I don’t need anyone.”

There was a storm raging inside of me. But outside my goal was to be normal. That’s the dream of every high school kid: I’m fine, I’m OK, I’m perfect. I’m a straight-A student. Just don’t pity me. Just don’t get too close. Just don’t make me have to feel anything.

On the first anniversary of my father’s murder, I was 16 and on my very first trip to Israel with my camp friends. We went to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem. I walked up to the wall and at first I just touched the ancient stones. Then I got closer and closer and I smelled it.

I smelled the Kotel. And the Kotel smelled like my father. It didn’t smell just a little like my dad, it smelled like my father’s armpit!

There I stood, eyes closed, with both of my arms outstretched, leaning against the wall so hard that I couldn’t tell anymore if I was standing up or lying down. Just lying there with my nose in my father’s armpit. And I began sobbing. The wall melted.

And I knew in my heart I had a father who would never leave me. And I had a mother who had more wisdom and love in her heart than I would ever know. I had siblings who adored me and whom I adored. I had friends who had my back forever.

And I had God, who might be a little lame.

“God, did you hear me?” I said. “You’re a little bit lame, but I have come to love you again, even more. You are a lot less powerful than I once imagined, but more perfect than any of us can ever conceive.”

And I had me. I wasn’t so weak after all. It was OK to be me. It was OK to be vulnerable. And all at once I annulled my vow. I didn’t have to go it alone anymore. I wasn’t on my own.

I never had been.

Yom Kippur comes down to just two themes, both from Ezekiel: First, “I will remove your heart of stone and I will give you a heart of flesh.” And second, “I will remove your heart of stone and I will give you a heart of flesh.”

What melts the heart of stone? Sometimes it’s a sense of memory that cuts through all your defenses and brings you back to something precious. That’s what happened to me at the Kotel. It’s like that moment in the animated movie “Ratatouille” when the mean restaurant critic tastes the ratatouille and is instantly transported back to his mother’s table. “Mama!”

Cutting through the heart of stone and arriving at the heart of flesh isn’t a one-time job. The stone heart isn’t gone forever. At every loss, at every disappointment, at every new challenge, it’s there ready to return, ready to take its familiar place inside you. And it takes so much courage to stay alive and soft and vulnerable.

To me today, it feels good to feel lost and hurt and to know that these feelings are essential to have because it means you’re alive with a heart of flesh that is also able to feel ecstasy and bliss and kookiness and abandon. So let down the “I’ll never forgive him.” Let down your stubborn stance. Let down the “I’m not going to apologize first.” Let down the gripe you have been holding against God. Forgive. Forgive life. Forgive her. Forgive him. Forgive yourself. May our vows not be vows. Break down your defenses and get to the heart of flesh.

It takes a lot of energy to carry that boulder around. Put it down! Maybe there’s a hurt you’re holding on to, a resentment, a jealousy, a guilt, an anger. Put it down. Let its grip on your heart be released. Our souls are calling us back to ourselves. We long to return to our suppleness.

You have the power to strip away all the muck that’s dimming the light of your true luminous soul. And God keeps whispering to us: Open for me the eye of a needle, and I will make you an opening wide enough for chariots to pass through.

So perhaps this is a good time to hear your soul asking you: “What are you running from? What are you afraid of?” And perhaps this is the right moment for each one of us to ask ourselves, Whose heart is hardened against me? And whom is my heart hardened against?

One of my favorite lines of all time comes from the movie “Moonstruck,” when Cher’s character tells her mom she wants to marry the Nicolas Cage character.

Her mom says, “Loretta, do you love him?”

She answers, “Yeah, Mom, I love him awful.”

And her mom says, “Oh, that’s too bad!”

It takes courage to let down the heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh.

Is there a cause to fear? Yes.

Is it possible you might get hurt? Yes.

Can someone break your heart? Yes.

But is it still worth trying to melt your heart of stone? Yes.

Why? Because we don’t want to be dead to life anymore.

It takes courage to break down that wall, but oh, the payoff.

May we all find the power to fulfill the prophecy of Ezekiel: Remove your heart of stone, and let your heart of flesh lead you back to the life you’ve been searching for. Amen.

Rabbi Naomi Levy is the author of “Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul” (Flatiron Books). She is the spiritual leader of Nashuva: The Jewish Spiritual Outreach Center in Los Angeles.

Excerpted from “Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul,” Copyright © 2017 by Naomi Levy. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.