May 15, 2004
The second part of this week’s haftarah is made up of psalms and sayings about God’s providential treatment of human beings and God’s cognizance of the true nature of the human psyche. Jeremiah offers this insight: “Most devious is the heart; it is perverse, who can fathom it? I the Lord probe the heart, search the mind (literally the kidneys) to repay every person according to his ways with the proper fruit of his or her deeds. (Jeremiah 17:9-10 adapted from NJPS translation) These verses inform us that only God has the ability to discern the true intention in people’s hearts, since the heart, which for the ancients was the center of feeling and thought, is twisted and deceptive. No one really knows what the heart might lead a person to do for the heart is, at times, weak and it is hard to plumb the depths of human behavior. (Hoffman, Jeremiah – Mikra L’Yisrael p. 398)
Rabbi David Kimche (Provance 12th century) asserts that these verses imply that one person cannot know what is on the minds of another person since a person’s deeds do not necessarily reflect his or her thoughts. God, on the other hand, knows and will judge the intent in a person’s heart. The following midrash senses an even deeper message in these verses: “Of all of the parts of the body, why does Scripture single out the heart and the kidneys? Because the eyes go astray after the heart… because the ears, and for that matter all two hundred and forty eight parts of the body, go astray after the heart; and the heart moves to satisfy itself only under the influence of the kidneys. Therefore in this verse Scripture mentions only the heart and the kidneys, because the Holy One Blessed be He searches the heart and the kidneys.” (Midrash Tehillim 14:1 Buber ed. p. 111)
This midrash seems quite humorous to the modern. The anatomical and psychological processes described here seem patently absurd. If we set this fact aside for a moment, the message found here is actually quite deep. Human beings are capable of not only fooling other people; they are also capable of fooling themselves. They can lead themselves astray without even being aware of it. It is a blessing that, at least, God is aware of what is going on in our “hearts” and does His best to make us aware so that we, too, may become aware of our own thoughts and rectify them when need be.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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