Hearts and Minds over Matter by Rabbi Chaim Poupko


Hezekiah Niles, an early 19th century American editor and publisher, received a letter in April of 1818 from his friend John Adams. In it, Adams makes an insightful observation which can be seen in this week’s Parashah. He writes:


“But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American War? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.”


In other words, Adams claims that the essential ingredients to the American Revolution were not the actual battles. Rather, to this Founding Father of the United States of America, the essential ingredient was the collection of values and beliefs held by the people. No battle could be won without these values and beliefs and the conviction to uphold them.

The Kotzker Rebbe identifies this same idea as a prerequisite for divine redemption. Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, who flourished around the same time as Adams but in another part of the world, argues that the Jewish peoples’ hearts and minds would have to be primed for Hashem in order for Hashem to carry out what He promised in his covenants with the Avot. The Jewish People would need to see themselves differently for the process to succeed. Hashem declares, “VeHotzeiti Etchem MiTachat Sivlot Mitzrayim,” “And I will take you out from underneath the burdens of Egypt” (Shemot 6:6). The Kotzker sees in this Pasuk that Hashem is describing not the physical act of being taken out of ancient Egypt but the critical first step in redemption. For Ge’ulah to occur, the people must first reject their exile. They must no longer align themselves, mentally and spiritually, with the host culture. They must aspire to rid themselves of the impurity of Egyptian paganism and yearn for lives of values embodied in their traditions. And so Moshe, in relating these expressions of Ge’ulah, anticipates that Hashem will help the Jewish people remove from their hearts and minds any tolerance for the idolatry and behaviors of ancient Egyptian society. The Kotzker sees this in the Torah’s curious usage of the uncommon term for servitude, “Sivlot,” which most simply means “burdens.” The Kotzker Rebbe suggests that this word also connotes the concept of “tolerance,” as in the similarly spelled word “Savlanut.” In other words, Hashem will enable the Jewish people to overcome their “tolerance” of ancient Egyptian culture. Out of this development, a fundamental change in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people will occur. And once they saw themselves as no longer subservient to an alien culture, they were ready to embark upon the other steps of divine redemption.

Sometimes when a project or other endeavor does not originally succeed, we say that our “heart wasn’t in it.” There are many instances when that sense of drive simply is not present, and it is difficult to accomplish something without the proper motivation. But when the aspirations are great, when the will for something is strong, then we see what the Kotzker Rebbe and, LeHavdil, John Adams understood. When the heart and mind believe in something and adhere to our best values, the degree of success will most likely be raised. Not too many years after Adams and the Kotzker, this insight provided the spark for a modern revolution when Theodore Herzl wrote, “if you will it, it is no dream.”

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