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Counting the Omer with

Day 4 — An Understanding Heart

Binat Ha’Lev • בינת הלב

By Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, Phoenix, Arizona

Rabbi Michael Satz
Rabbi Michael Satz

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the Hebrew word lev means more than simply “heart.” According to Rav Hirsch: “The term lev denotes a typically Jewish concept, the wellspring of every emotion, every aspiration, every endeavor, the source of every moral and spiritual impulse and tendency, even of all thought and character. Hence lev denotes the root and source of every endeavor and every achievement” (Commentary on Pirkei Avot 2:13). To acquire Torah, and thus, to grow morally and spiritually, we must actualize our human potential of binat ha’lev — an understanding heart. It is in this quality that we realize not only the value of intellectual discernment and analysis, but also the growth of our emotional intelligence. Brain scans reveal that when participants engage in moral reasoning, there is significant activation in areas crucial to emotional processing. This observation supports the arguments of New York University clinical and developmental psychologist Martin Hoffman, namely that the roots of morality are located in empathy. In short, people learn to follow certain moral principles when they can put themselves in another’s place. These findings also bolster the ideas of educational reformer John Dewey, who taught that lessons are best learned by students when taught not via abstract lessons, but through real life events where emotional literacy is acquired.

Relatedly, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook emphatically stressed the importance of emotions in education. In one of his most powerful writings, Rav Kook made the case about how intellect is deficient without emotion and the dangers of neglecting emotional cultivation: “Man cannot live with intellect alone, nor with emotion alone; intellect and emotion must forever be joined together. If he wishes to burst beyond his own level, he will lose his ability to feel, and his flaws and deficiencies will be myriad despite the strength of his intellect. And needless to say, if he sinks into unmitigated emotion, he will fall to the depths of foolishness, which leads to all weakness and sin. Only the quality of equilibrium, which balances intellect with emotion, can deliver him completely” (Scholem, Devarim be-Go, 326-327).

The Greeks used drama to teach emotions; the Jews use real-life experience. We must expose our children to life, “the real world” of poverty, suffering, and struggle. To ensure that our children become baalei midot (refined people), we must model the indispensable emotions of sympathy, empathy, compassion, and love in every endeavor we pursue, no matter how mundane. The rewards will be immense. And, indeed, it will only be through this careful and deliberate emotional refinement that our ability to actualize our full service in this world — b’chol levavecha to people and God — will be realized. It all begins by opening our hearts to the world.

Rav Mordechai Yosef of Izbica (“The Ishbitze Rebbe!”) taught that reason can only get us so far and to understand Divine revelation, we must cultivate our binat ha’lev. This will mean that the hidden inner dimensions will always be deeper and more true than the outer, more superficial, manifestations in reality. With this night of the counting of the Omer, we can learn to see more deeply. It starts within our heart.


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