Tefillah Tuesday: Single Heart

Ahavah Rabbah continues with a plea that God will:

להאר עינינו בתורתך / lehaer eineinu betoratekha, “to illuminate our eyes with your Torah,” or as Danny Siegel rendered it in song: “May your eyes sparkle with the light of Torah.”

דבק לבנו במצוותיך / dabbek libenu bemitzvotekha, to make our heart cleave to Your commandments, and

/יחד לבבנו לאהבה וליראה את שמך yahed levaveinu leahavah uleyirah et shemekha, to unify our hearts to love and revere Your name. 

Each of these is a prayer for an intense and elevating spiritual experience. We seek illumination and devekut – that sense of “cleaving” or being “glued to God,” so important in mystical Judaism. Each of these clauses deserves its own dedicated Tuesday comment, and maybe I will get to each. But this week I want to focus on the third of these, our plea for a “unified heart,” and use it as a preface to the Shema, which is coming around the bend in the Siddur.

Like many siddur lines, this is a biblical paraphrase, in this case from Psalms 86.11: “Teach me Your way, Lord, and I will walk in Your truth; unify my heart to revere Your name, יחד לבבי ליראה שמך.”

Why do we need unified hearts? What scatters or fragments them? Rabbinic spiritual psychology posits that human beings possess both ayetzer hatov and a yetzer hara, good and bad inclinations. Quite possibly the composers of our prayer book [though probably not the psalmists] have something like this in mind.

The Hebrew word for heart can be either לב/lev or לבב/levav, that is,spelled with either one or two bets. A standard rabbinic trope is that the doubled bet in levav signifies the doubled heart, split by its instincts for holiness and well as for havoc. R. Barukh HaLevi Epstein [d. 1933] davened the prayer this way: “God, please make my divided, conflicted psyche into a single heart, so that I may revere You,” as he wrote in his commentary, Barukh She’Amar.

This plea for a unified heart calls to my mind Soren Kierkegaard’s classic of religious existentialism, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. In this short book, the Danish Christian thinker calls upon the truly religious person to direct her will toward the all-encompassing Good, as unified in God. You cannot want the Good [or God] so that you will be rewarded in this world or the hereafter; you cannot want the Good so that others will esteem you or give you a good job in the church, or so you will win an argument and be renowned for your wisdom. All that, he calls “double-mindedness.” But the “single-minded” and “pure of heart” seeks only God and the Good for its own goodness. To attain this level inwardly and existentially and especially in prayer, he writes, one needs a “collected mind … that has collected itself from all distraction” [p. 130]. I think of that passage when I recite our phrase: יחד לבבנו / “unify our hearts to love and revere;” help me be single-minded toward the holy, and overcome my tendency to scatter and waste my inner spiritual energies.

Finally, when you daven this phrase, call to mind that a verb for the act of reciting the Shema –proclaiming that God is One, or יי אחד— is the very same word: ליחד, le’yahed, to unify or to proclaim the unity. The Ahavah Rabbah paragraph concludes on just this note: God calls us להודות לך וליחדך / lehodot lekha u’leyahed’kha / to thank You and to proclaim Your unity.

When I daven this line, I devotionally, spiritually, match it up to the earlier phrase: unify our hearts so that we may unify Your name. As God is One, the Oneness of all existence, so may I be one, focused, not conflicted or scattered, and in purity of heart, not self interest, may I will One thing: that God is One.