I was sent a lovely Shabbat greeting earlier today by Jewish poet Stacey Zisook Robinson that she had read somewhere else. It was the words of a 5th grade child who had said: ‘God made me by heart.’ It was a beautiful sentiment and one that could take us to very deep places if we sat and contemplated it a while. But I was struck at the timing of the message, coinciding with this particular Shabbat – Shabbat Terumah – which begins with the words, ‘Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.’
What does it mean to do something by heart? In colloquial terms, it often means to know something by memory. But even in the everyday contexts to which we might apply the phrase, that definition doesn’t really do it justice. I know that even when there were times in my youth when I tried to commit a piece of music or a poem to memory, if I truly had something down ‘by heart’ it was much deeper than that. Relying on my memory I’d often get mixed up, or second-guess myself and make mistakes. But truly knowing something ‘by heart’ meant that I had deeply integrated it within myself – it had become a part of me, and sharing it was a way of now expressing a part of me.
There are countless idiomatic expressions in the English language that rely on the heart. Just a few examples: (found at Idiom Connection)
- basically, essentially, what one really is rather than what one appears to be
The man seems to be angry all the time but actually he is a very gentle person at heart.
close to (someone's) heart
- an idea or something that is important to you and that you care about
The plan to improve the downtown area is very close to the mayor's heart.
find it in one's heart to (do something)
- to have the courage or compassion to do something
from the bottom of one`s heart
- with great feeling, sincerely
The girl thanked the man from the bottom of her heart for saving her dog`s life.
have a heart-to-heart talk with (someone)
to have a sincere and intimate talk with someone
open one`s heart to (someone)
- to talk about one`s feelings honestly, to confide in someone
with all one`s heart (and soul)
- with all one's energy and feeling
To do something by heart is to do something that deeply expresses some essential aspect of our self. I love the idea that ‘God made us by heart’ – it expresses so beautifully something of what it might mean to be made in God’s likeness. And when the Children of Israel were asked that those whose hearts moved them should contribute to the Mishkan – the Tabernacle that represents the Presence of God in their midst, this notion then becomes reciprocal. In fact, I think it goes deeper than that. When the Children of Israel do something with all their heart – something that innately expresses an essential piece of who each one of them is (and they do that by bringing not only things but also the talents and skills that they possess to the job of building the Mishkan), they actually manifest God’s Presence in their midst.
This is a powerful lesson. The notion that, by being fully present and sharing something of our deepest sense through our gifts and our giving, we are actually manifesting the God Who Dwells Among Us. And we, mere human beings, have the power to do this because our essential selves are, in turn, a manifestation of an aspect of God’s essence. All we need to do is search within, and then let it out.
So each and every one us of can ask ourselves the question, ‘What can I do ‘by heart’ to build the mishkan in my home, my congregation, my community, my world?’ The Children of Israel were given the gift of an opportunity – to help create a great symbol that would travel with them throughout the wilderness journeys to remind them how to manifest God in their midst. What reminders do we need? How can this place - this holy space – provide us with the reminders that we need to live more of life ‘by heart?’ We say that the study of Torah leads us to a life of mitzvot – the spiritual practice of being together, hearing Torah together, praying for and with each other… this is our modern Mishkan, and it is one place to start.