Rabbi Conover – Week 4 in Israel

This blog is based on a Dvar Torah that I shared with my Hartman Cohort last Shabbat.  It feels even more relevant on this Shabbat just before Tisha B’Av that begins tomorrow evening. 


Before I begin, I want to thank Noam Zion for helping me think through this concept and suggesting wonderful resources, of course.

I also want to thank colleagues who live this concept through their work and their lives—thanks especially to Justus Baird and Ari Sunshine.  You inspire me.

Finally, I would like to dedicate this teaching to Harold Leftwich, zichrono livracha, who taught me so much about love.  I know I will be working with and learning from his teachings as part of my life’s work.

Mary Oliver’s poem entitled Lead opens:

Here is a story

to break your heart.

Are you willing?

She continues by telling of a period of time during the winter when loons came to her harbor and died en masse.  No one could determine the reason.  She wrote of their beauty in appearance, in their potential and in voice.

She concluded the poem:

I tell you this

to break your heart,

by which I mean only

that it break open and never close again

to the rest of the world.

With the beginning of the month of Av that trudges forebodingly to the 9th of Av (in Hebrew, Tisha B’Av) I have been thinking a lot about heart brokenness and the state of our world.  Words spoken to me by Stephanie Ives last year have been especially helpful as I try to connect to this Jewish holiday that commemorates the many calamities that happened to our people on this date including the destruction of the First and Second Temple in Jerusalem.  She said:

Tisha B’Av is the one day in the year when you can look around at all the brokenness in our world and all you have to do about it is cry.

(Such sage and helpful words to an activist who usually feels like I have to do something about all of the injustice and heart break in our world.)

As many of you know, I have been thinking a lot about how love fits into the work of justice. Not chesed (loving-kindness) associated with mercy and not the Christian notion of love associated with turning the other cheek.    The love I will speak about is associated with the ability of hearing another person’s heart.

Recently, I listed to a podcast of the radio show RadioLab.  It was a recording of a live show in which a woman who had heart surgery told the story of her abnormally loud beating heart.  In great detail she carried the audience through open heart surgery and its result—her heart beat so loud that it often kept her up at night.  The show ended with her holding the microphone a couple inches away from her heart so that the entire audience could hear her beating heart.  And with that, at least six people in the audience proceeded to faint.  Scores of others felt physically shaken or weakened.  Their para-sympathetic response had kicked in.  In other words, these people heard her heart beat and were physically altered by it.

For me, hearing another person’s heart beat—with all of its unique patterns, pains and joys, yet, recognizing your own heart beat with it—that’s love.

And how we respond, for many of us, is where justice and ethics comes in.  But I think it happens in a step before that.  It happens in the first step we take to get closer to hear another person’s heartbeat.

As the great contemporary civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson puts it

Justice begins by getting proximate.

Bryan recently shared a powerful story of getting proximate with a young teenager—fourteen years old—who was sitting on death row.  Bryan had been hired to handle his appeal.  However, when he went to meet with him in a room in the prison, this boy wouldn’t talk.  Bryan tried to reason with him, “Listen, if you don’t talk to me, I can’t help you.”  He repeated this five or six more times.  Nothing.  Then, moved closer to this boy, and just leaned on him.  He got close enough to feel this boy’s beating heart.  Close enough for the boy to feel Bryan’s heart.  With that, the boy began to weep uncontrollably and slowly, between sobs he told Bryan stories that broke his heart.  In repsonse, Bryan listened.

Justice begins by getting proximate enough to hear another person’s heartbeat.  And this is where love and justice merge.

I have felt my own self failing in this as someone living on the north side of Chicago.  I have failed to get proximate to communities living in neighborhoods mere miles from me where poverty, lack of access to basic human services, and violence run rampant.  Yet, as Erich Fromm writes in The Art of Loving, “Love isn’t something natural.  Rather, it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism.  It isn’t a feeling, it is a practice.”

As Av descends, may we begin the practice of taking the first steps to get proximate; to hear the heart beats and the heart breaks of people in communities that in many ways do not look like us.

As we conclude Bamimdbar whose final portion recounts in 42 stations our people’s story of getting proximtate, may we have the strength to open a new book that commands us to “place these words on our hearts;”  a book whose commands of Shema (to listen) and Re’eih (to see) can only be fulfilled in close proximity to others.

With proximity comes hearing stories that are so difficult they cause our hearts to break.  You, no doubt, know the Hasidic story that answers why the words of Deuteronomy are placed on our hearts and not inside.

A disciple asks the rebbe: “Why does the Torah tell us to place these words upon your hearts?  Why does it not tell us to place these words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers: “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts.  So we place them on top of our hearts.  And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”


I tell you this

to break your heart,

by which I mean only

that it break open and never close again

to the rest of the world.

May this month and our commemoration of Tisha B’Av open us to gaining a deeper understanding of the Kotsker Rebbe’s words: “There is nothing as whole as a broken heart.”

For those of you who would like to follow your heart to get more proximate, consider joining me for How Desolate Lies the City: A South Side Tisha B’Av Eicha Reading & Teach-In  at 9:30pm at Washington Park (Cottage Grove between 59th and 60th).