Likkutei Sichos-Netzavim: Circumcising one’s heart-how and when

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Parshas Netzavim

Circumcising one’s heart-how and when

(Likkutei Sichos Nitzavim Vol. 29)

Parshas Netzavim is always read prior to Rosh Hashanah. The verse states, “Atem Netzavim Hayom Kulchem Lifney Hashem Elokeichem/You are standing all today before Hashem, your G-d.” It is recorded in the Hasidic teachings that the term Hayom/today refers to Rosh Hashanah. This Parsha which is always read prior to Rosh Hashanah contains an important message for a Jew prior to entering the high holidays. After discussing the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people, the Parsha discusses the sinful behavior of the Jewish people being led astray by the abominations and idols of the Gentile nations. The verse then discusses how eventually the Jewish people will repent and return to G-d. After we repent, Scripture states that G-d will circumcise our hearts, and that we will then love Him with all of our heart and soul. The question is raised as to what is referred to in this circumcision of the heart, and as to what G-d is coming to circumcise. In other verses, when discussing circumcision of the heart, it explicitly says that it refers to the circumcision of the foreskin of the heart. In this verse, however, the term foreskin is omitted. It likewise remains to be understood as to why our hearts need to be circumcised by G-d if we have already repented. It is also quite strange that Rashi does not comment on any of this. In answer to these questions the Rebbe explains that the circumcision that G-d will do to our heart after repentance is one that will remove our potential for lust of sin. The Rebbe then connects this with our divine service in the month of Elul, which must contain also an element of arousing love for G-d aside for the general spirit of repentance.


Explorations of the Sicha:

1. What is the meaning of the circumcision of the heart? What is being circumcised and why?

2. Why does the heart need to be circumcised after repenting?

3. What are the leading causes of sin?

4. Will we still have the potential to commit sin also in the future era?

5. Which divine service is demanded of us in the month of Elul?

1. G-d will circumcise the hearts of the Jewish people:

The verse states[1], “and G-d will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants.” Now, the Targum translates this as follows, “and G-d will remove the foolishness of your heart.” Seemingly, the reason for this interpretation of the Targum is because whenever Scripture mentions circumcision it is in reference to the foreskin, and indeed we find in a previous Parsha[2] that the verse states, “and G-d will circumcise the foreskin of your heart.” Thus, the Targum explains that in truth this verse too refers to the foolishness of the heart, as the Targum translates the term foreskin as foolishness when it is used in Scripture in the previous Parsha. It remains to be understood however why Rashi does not address this issue and remains completely silent in his commentary.

2. The foolishness of our hearts are already circumcised:

One can explain that the reason Rashi here does not comment as does the Targum that the intent in this verse is that G-d will remove the foolishness of the heart, is because this verse comes in sequence to the verses discussion of the Jewish people repenting. The previous verse states, “You will return to G-d and listen to his voice, you and your children with all your heart and all your soul. G-d will then return your captives and bring you to the land and circumcise your hearts.” Accordingly, it ends up that this verse which mentions the circumcision of our hearts cannot be referring to the removal of the foolishness of our hearts, as this has already taken place through our repentance as described in the previous verses. [Included in the returning to G-d with a complete heart is the removal of the foolishness from our hearts and hence there is no longer need for G-d to do so for us.] It is for this reason that Rashi does not state that this verse is referring to the removal of the foolishness of the heart as explains the Targum on this verse. However, what remains to be understood according to Rashi is regarding what indeed the verse is referring to when it mentions that G-d will circumcise our hearts. The answer to this question is found in the next part of this verse.

3. G-d will prepare our hearts to love him:

The verse which states that G-d will circumcise our hearts continues and says, “so that you love Hashem your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul for the sake of your life.” From here we can understand even without a commentary from Rashi, that the purpose of this circumcision is not to remove something bad from the heart but rather it is to prepare the heart, so it can hold the love of G-d. In other words, as a result of our repentance discussed previously in the verse, we have managed to circumcise the foolishness from our hearts and accept the yoke of heaven to serve G-d and fear Him. However, our hearts are not yet capable of handling a true love of G-d that permeates all of our being. To accomplish this, G-d himself will circumcise and prepare our hearts. Nonetheless, it still remains to be understood as to why the word circumcision is used here in this context. Likewise, we must understand as to why we need G-d to prepare our hearts for loving Him if loving G-d is already a command in the Torah that every Jew must fulfill on his own. The answer to this lies in the state of the Jewish people described in the beginning of the Parsha.

4. A permanent love that will never be removed:

In the beginning of the Parsha, Scripture describes the downfall of the Jewish people in exile and their being led after sin. The verse states that seeing the abominations and idols of the Gentiles led us to stray after them. In other words, from here we see that even when the Jewish people are in a good spiritual state, there is always the potential for them to sin and to be led astray after matters that look good in their eyes and create a lust in their heart. Even if a Jew fulfills the command of loving G-d, the potential for him stray after sinful lusts still remains. This then is the purpose of G-d’s promise to circumcise our hearts, after us having already repented and returned to Him. The purpose of this circumcision is to remove the potential of us ever straying after evil again, and is fulfilled through G-d removing the lust for sinful activity from our hearts.

5. How G-d will remove our potential lust for sin:

To explain this a little deeper, we need to analyze two aspects which lead a man to chase after his lusts and commit sin.

  1. The foolishness and clogging of the heart: One of the causes of lust for sin is the clogged state of the heart. When the heart is spiritually refined it does not naturally and instinctively lust for sinful activity. However, when it is course and clogged and does not contain spiritual sensitivity, then it’s emotions are a lot more animalistic and sinful in nature.
  2. The instigation of the evil inclination that is caused by eyes and mind: A second cause that can bring one to lust for sin has nothing to do with the state of sensitivity of the heart, but rather due to external matters, such as looking at sinful behavior or at matters that create a lust for sin. If man brings himself to look and think of sinful activity then it can bring his heart to lust after them, and break through its spiritual sensitivity. This connection between the eyes and the heart, that one lusts after what one sees, is a character trait that G-d embedded into the nature of the human psyche, and is not within the power of man to control or detach.

Thus, the above statement of Scripture which relates that G-d will circumcise our hearts, refers to G-d removing the second aspect. The first aspect which leads to lust for sin, which is the foolishness and clogged state of the heart, is within the realm of man to work on and remove. Through repentance, we have ability to refine our hearts and once again become spiritually sensitive. However, the second aspect cannot be accomplished by man, as G-d created an automatic natural connection between the mind and eyes and the heart, and what the eyes see the heart desires. It is this connection between the eyes and the heart that G-d will sever, and a new nature of human psyche will exist, in which even when the eyes see sinful activity, the heart will not be aroused and activated to lust after it. G-d will thus remove the ability for one to arouse his heart to sin through sight and contemplation of sin.

6. A complete love for G-d:

Based on the above, we can now understand the connection in the verse between this circumcision of the heart and the great love that we will have for G-d. So long as one’s heart contains the potential for sin, and the potential to arouse lusts for the forbidden, it is not possible for it to fully and completely love G-d, as part of the emotional space in the heart is reserved for the potential for forbidden lusts. However, when G-d will remove this potential from our hearts, then it will be fully capable of housing only the love of G-d, and it is for this reason that the verse states after the mentioning of the circumcision of the heart, that we will then love G-d with all of our heart and all of our soul.

7. The divine service expected in the month of Elul:

The name Elul has been given many different acronyms, representing the different divine services that are demanded of a Jew during this month. One of the acronyms provided by the Baal Haturim[3] is that it stands for the words in the verse in our Parsha of “Umal Hashem Elokecha Es Levavcha Vies Levav Zarecha” The Baal Haturim continues and states that this acronym represents the service of Teshuvah, and therefore it is customary for one to recite Selichos during this month. This explanation of the Baal Haturim seems to run symmetric to the commentary of the Targum who says that the verse refers to the removal of the foolishness of the heart. However, according to the commentary brought above [which is the seeming understanding of Rashi who keeps silent and does not comment on this verse], one can say that it’s message refers to something much higher than mere repentance from sin. The intent of this verse and its acronym of Elul, is not the service of repentance from sin but rather the service of love of G-d, which is similar to the message of the acronym of Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li. Now, although the main love for G-d is reached during the high holidays and is provided to us by G-d Himself, as explained in length in Chasidic discourses, nonetheless, a Jew must place effort to reach the maximum feeling of love that he can achieve on his own, and this is his service in Elul.


The divine lesson:

Several matters can be learned from the above talk, including:

1. Spiritual sensitivity is a key to preventing one from falling to sin. The more the heart becomes indulged in lusts and physical pleasures, the more course it becomes, and the more difficult it becomes for it to overcome its lusts for sin. Attaining spiritual sensitivity is accomplished by both abstaining from superfluous matters of pleasure [i.e. Iskafya] as well as through developing spiritual feeling for G-d which is accomplished through prayer.

2. Spiritual sensitivity of the heart is not the only key to avoid falling to sin. One must also protect himself from exposure to sinful activity. Even a person who was born to refined and righteous parents, and himself has only been involved in divine service throughout his life, can potentially bring himself to falling to the lusts of sin if he exposes himself to it. Until the coming of Mashiach when G-d will circumcise our hearts, there will be a natural connection between the heart and eyes, that the heart will covet that which the eyes see. Hence, it is of utmost importance that we guard ourselves from exposure to inappropriate behavior and sinful activity. It goes without saying that our Internet connection must be safe and filtered to prevent us from accidental or deliberate exposure to filth that can then clog our spiritually sensitive hearts.

3. Our focus in the month of Elul should not just be one of crying and repentance, but also one of spiritual rejuvenation, to rehabilitate our relationship with God, and reignite and rekindle our love for Him. This can be accomplished through simply pouring out one’s heart to G-d during prayer with a soulful melody. Try it and see!


[1] Nitzavim 30:6

[2] Eikev 10:16

[3] Baal Haturim Dvarim 30:6; Abudarham; Bach 581; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 128:1; Brought in M”B 581 introduction; Likkutei Torah Riei 19

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