I cried when I listened to President Joe Biden’s inaugural address; I was far from the only one. I didn’t cry because it was a rhetorically eloquent speech, but because it was so eloquently simple, because it came from a human being, a person with a heart.
Biden’s words reminded me of a phrase from Vaclav Havel: what the world needs is a politics of responsibility, a politics of the heart:
“The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.”
Whether President Biden will prove able to provide enduring leadership of this quality, faced with all the challenges, tribulations and inevitable compromises of office, only the coming years will tell.
But the task is not his alone; it calls to us all.
The Torah has a great deal to say about hearts. Pharaoh has a hard heart. It would be fairer to say that his allotted role is to exemplify what hard-heartedness is: he doesn’t listen and doesn’t care, not just about the Children of Israel but even about his own Egypt.
It’s tempting to point at others, especially leaders, who’re hard hearted. The founder of Hasidism, the Ba’al Shem Tov, knew better: everyone, he said, has not just a Moses but also a Pharaoh inside.
I often end my day wondering if I’ve behaved with heart. The simple prayer says it all: ‘Open my heart through your Torah,’ which I take to mean ‘through all life,’ because all experience can be understood as God’s teaching.
I worry: have I said or done something harsh or hurtful? There is endless pain in the world, most of it unspoken. If life is a bird alighted next to us, it’s so easy carelessly to break its wing, so easy not even to notice it’s there.
This week is devoted to mental health. (Please see the events we’re hosting or recommending, and what my colleagues have written.) I only want to say that the Torah speaks of an open heart, a wise heart and a strong heart.
An open heart says, most often not through words: I’m here and I hear. It doesn’t say, or convey, ‘I don’t want to know;’ it doesn’t change the subject; it doesn’t have the answers. It simply communicates, ‘I care.’ I read of a refugee who told a woman who’d listened to his story: ‘I feel heard for the first time since I fled. I’m less in exile now.’
I’m not sure what a wise heart says. But I’ve met people who have one. I can’t remember anything specific they told me, but the feeling I had in their company remains. They listened. They gave out something which couldn’t exactly be called ‘advice.’ I don’t know how to describe it, and it was something more than words which conveyed it. It was an understanding that life has depth, is difficult; that pain is; that life is also robust; that the next step must be dared; that if I fell they’d be there for me still.
A strong heart is not the same as a hard heart. It is resolute not because it’s closed but because it’s open. Its defences exist only to protect and maintain its tenderness. They represent the strength not of coldness but of love.
At this time of intense individual stress and collective challenge, which affects each one of us, though in different ways, impacting every nation and the planet itself, I wish us openness, wisdom and strength of heart, for ourselves, each other and the leaders and presidents of the world.