Emily Dickinson led a notoriously reclusive life. She rarely entertained, maintained few close friendships, and spent months at a time locked up in her room, talking to herself. Through her poetry, however, Dickinson reframed some of her internal monologues as lively dialogues in which she cast as her interlocutor the most trusted confidant she could think of: her own heart. In one poem, for instance, Dickinson assures her “frail little heart” that “I would not break thee,” but concedes that “thou’ll wilted be.” In a second poem, she resolves: “Heart, we will forget him!/ You and I, tonight!/ You may forget the warmth he gave/ I will forget the light!” In yet other poems, Dickinson speaks of “a brook in [my] little heart” where “[my] little draught of life/ is daily drunken;” of a “mob in the heart/ that police cannot suppress;” and “of the heart that goes in, and closes the door.” Still, perhaps no poem captures what the heart symbolized for Dickinson as explicitly as her “The Heart is the Capital of the Mind:”
The Heart is the Capital of the Mind—
The Mind is a single State—
The Heart and the Mind together make
A single Continent—
One—is the Population—
This ecstatic Nation
Seek—it is Yourself.
Paradoxically, Dickinson’s heart was both the source of and the solution to her solitude. It was, at once, a part of her yet apart from her, allowing her to express herself without forcing her to venture beyond the borders of “this ecstatic Nation/ [that] is Yourself.”
The notion of somebody carrying a conversation with his or her own heart is a striking one—a strange one, even. Nevertheless, it is not only in the poetry of Emily Dickinson that we find this image. According to the Bible, Hashem “speaks to His heart” following the flood of Noah, vowing never again to punish humankind so severely for its misdeeds (Gen. 8:21). Abraham “speaks in his heart” upon receiving the news that Sarah will bear a child, questioning how a woman of ninety years old could possibly conceive (Gen. 17:17). Esau “speaks in his heart” after Jacob steals his birthright, conspiring to murder his brother once his father passes away (Gen. 27:41). For various reasons, none of these characters are in a position to share their feelings with others. Thus, like Dickinson, they all “speak to their hearts.”
Besides for Hashem, Abraham and Esau, nobody in the entire Torah—nobody, that is, in the five books of Moses—ever “speaks to his heart.” Yet the phrase does appear four times in a slightly different formulation. Three of those appearances occur in this week’s Torah portion:
If you shall say in your heart, “These nations are more numerous than I—how will I be able to defeat them?… You shall not be terrified of them, for the Lord, your God, Who is in your midst, is a great and awesome God (Deut. 7:17-21)
Beware that you do not forget the Lord, your God… lest you eat and be sated, and build good houses and dwell therein, and your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold increase, and all that you have increases, and your heart grows haughty, and you forget the Lord, your God, Who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage… and you say in your heart, “It was my strength and the might of my hand that has achieved this success for me (Deut. 8:11-17).
Do not say in your heart when the Lord your God has repelled them from you: “Because of my righteousness has the Lord brought me to possess this land, and because of the wickedness of these peoples has God vanquished them from before [me]” (Deut. 9:4).
In context, these verses do not attract particular attention. However, they contain a phrase that we find in no other book of the Torah. When Hashem, Abraham and Esau “speak to their hearts,” they do so in the narrative present. In our Torah portion, by contrast, Moses predicts what the Israelites will “say to their hearts” at some later date. He does so three times in the span of three chapters. What is he trying to communicate, thematically?
We’ve already seen that throughout the Torah (as in the poetry of Dickinson), to “speak to one’s heart” is to take conference with oneself; to turn inwards; to seek shelter from the world outside. It is instructive to note, in this regard, that all three of the verses cited above are phrased in the second person singular. To be sure, Moses is facing the nation in its entirety. Yet he is apparently addressing its members as individuals.
The subject of Moses’ address in Deuteronomy 7 is an Israelite preparing for war. This Israelite is frightened because his enemies seem too powerful to conquer. For whatever reason, though, the Israelite does not feel comfortable discussing his concerns with his friends, relatives or countrymen. So his anxiety remains “in in his heart,” where it gradually grows out of proportion. Meanwhile, the fact that everybody around him seems immune to the fears he is experiencing only exacerbates his sense of isolation. He begins to wonder whether he is in this battle alone. “The adversaries are greater than me,” he laments—implying that nobody else is engaged in the struggle; that nobody else is fighting alongside him; that nobody else is doing their part to help them all emerge victorious.
Few attitudes are as counterproductive as the one which declares that “it’s me against the world.” When, faced with a challenge, we dismiss or fail to appreciate the support of those who care for us, then we make it very difficult for ourselves to get ahead. We surrender to life’s trials much sooner when we do not have the confidence that somebody “has got our back.” And yet, unaided successes are not unheard of. Some people go through trying times without ever asking for anybody’s assistance, and end up doing just fine. They face their ordeals alone and overcome them too. After all, anything is possible with the right combination of hard work, determination, and favorable circumstance—or, as our Torah portion presents it, “help from above.”
There is danger in such successes, however. If, as Moses describes in Deuteronomy 8, we “eat and are sated;” if we “build good houses and dwell therein;” if our “herds and flocks multiply and our silver and our gold increase;” and if throughout we neither request nor recognize the assistance of others—then, our “hearts grow haughty.” Eventually, we become convinced that “it was all on account of my strength and the might of my hand that I have achieved this success.” We develop a false sense of our own abilities and tell ourselves that we need nobody. As a result, we heed only our own hearts: we do not take counsel with others, we do not solicit their opinions, and we do not show them gratitude even when it is warranted, because we think that we are invulnerable and invincible.
What if this illusion of complete independence is never shattered? What if—despite everybody cautioning us that sooner or later we are going to need to become a team player—we continue winning all on our own? Have we then beat the game? Have we reached the ultimate goal? In an ideal world, arrogance would never pay off. Life does not always work that way, though. There are those who are so talented and so fortunate that they actually manage to obtain nearly everything they want—wealth, power, status, fame—without regard for anybody else. They do not form partnerships or forge alliances. They do not rely on others for much. They do everything by themselves, and somehow, they still come out on top.
The trouble with making it to “the top” is that, once there, we may find it hard to see others without “looking down” upon them. If we are not careful, we adopt a sort of wellness macho—a conviction that all those who have not been blessed with the same skill or success as we have only themselves to blame. And so we remain lonely at the top: we forfeit not only the opportunity to gain from others (“I don’t need them”), but also the opportunity to give (“they don’t deserve it”). That is why Moses warns us in Deuteronomy 9: “Do not say in your heart, ‘because of my righteousness has the Lord brought me to possess this land, and because of the wickedness of these peoples has God vanquished them from before me.’” Do not, in other words, let yourself believe that you are inherently better than everyone else. Do not for a moment think that you have your successes coming to you, or that those who fail have failure coming to them. If you have been blessed with talents or assets that those around you do not possess, it is not because you are entitled to these gifts; it is because you have been assigned the sacred responsibility of sharing them with others.
“And you shall say in your heart:” Throughout our Torah portion we are presented with individuals who know only to speak the language of their own hearts. But it is not by insulating ourselves from society that we fulfill the imperative of walking in the ways of Hashem. “You see what is visible to the eyes, yet God sees what is in the heart,” says the prophet Samuel (I Sam. 16:7). Sensitivity, empathy, and a deep desire to form meaningful, two-way relationships—these are the traits of the Hebrew God. To learn to see into the heart of another, and to learn to open our hearts to others as well—that is our task. Each of us has much to gain from those around us, and much to give to them too. Emily Dickinson put it well:
If I can stop one Heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain
Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live in Vain.