The recent passing of actress Debbie Reynolds just a day after the death of her daughter, Carrie Fisher, led to speculation that the mother died of a broken heart. Indeed, there is a condition called takotsubo cardiomyopathy (broken heart syndrome) which can result from extreme stress, according to the American Heart Association. The condition can be mistaken for a heart attack because symptoms include chest pain and shortness of breath even without any evidence of blocked heart arteries.
February is American Heart Month and Judaism has much to say about our hearts. However, our Rabbis spoke less about cardiac stress and more about emotional heart distress. The well-known phrase from the Kotzker Rebbe teaches: “There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.”
Christian writer C.S. Lewis commented: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one … wrap it carefully … avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
Spiritual health requires an open, vulnerable heart. Our sages ask, what did Moses do with the shards of the 10 commandments which he broke after witnessing the Israelites dancing around a golden calf idol? And they answer that the broken tablets were placed in the Holy Ark along with the second, intact set which Moses later received from God (Talmud Bava Batra 14b). By this metaphor, the Ark becomes a symbol of the human heart, holding simultaneously that which is broken and that which is intact.
Well do we know that some times during our lifetimes we will need to carry the broken shards of our hearts. There is no life without loss; there is no love without heartbreak; there is no joy without pain. With time, and the loving support of our families, friends, community, people and faith, most of us will find our way through, perhaps even becoming stronger in the broken places as our scar tissue becomes fertile ground for empathy, depth, compassion, understanding and wisdom.
Sometimes we don’t know how we get through. And once again, the same Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk gives us guidance. He was asked why does the Vahavta prayer state that God’s words should be carried “al levavecha… UPON your heart?” Shouldn’t we carry God’s words IN our heart? And that very heart-smart Rabbi stated: “Of course God’s words should be IN your heart, but that is not always possible. At the very least, you can put the words ON your heart and they may just sit there for a very long time. Some day your heart will crack and, if the words are already on top of your heart, they can slip right in!”
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts bring us hope, healing and strength during this month of heart health.
Rabbi Judy Chessin\May\