(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...lev tov, a good heart...
(Exodus 31:6) ...uv'lev kol chakham lev natati chokhma; ... in the heart of each who is wise-hearted I have put wisdom.
It is a lovely compliment to tell someone he or she has a good heart. I think that many, if not most, would say that a person with a good heart indeed understands the essence of Torah – be open to God, be kind to your fellow human beings, be compassionate toward all life.
Unfortunately, what we mean by "a good heart" and what Pirkei Avot presumes by "a good heart" are not exactly the same.
Before physiology was quite the scientific discipline it is today, the general belief was that the heart served the function of what we now know of the brain. That is, at the center of the body resided the center of thought, emotion and appetite. The heart has two chambers, this understanding affirmed; one contained the inclination to tov (let's call it "good" for now) and the other the inclination to ra ("bad"). A person can't live with half a heart, which made both of those chambers necessary. Within the "bad" chamber were the impulses to acquisitiveness and gratification – our appetite for food and pleasure, our desire to acquire material goods and status, our yearning for power and control. None of these impulses is wrong in and of itself, and some (like the appetite for food and sex) are necessary for the survival of the self and the species. Likewise, the "good" chamber housed the impulses to generosity and nurture – our yearning to provide for others and fix whatever was broken can be attributed to this chamber. None of these impulses is right in and of itself, and some (like misplaced compassion for a sworn enemy) can actually threaten the individual and the community. They are mutually dependent and, in and of themselves, value-neutral. The "bad" impulse drives us to earn the money that the "good" impulse can give to tzedakah. The "good" impulse drives us to love a soul mate that the "bad" impulse desires for physical pleasure.
I actually prefer to term them the inclinations to altruism and selfishness. Lev tov means "an altruistic nature."
Likewise, the Torah verse quoted above seems an exercise in redundancy and misunderstanding. In discussing the construction of the Tabernacle, God says, "in the heart of each who is wise-hearted I have put wisdom." It almost sounds like the awkward greeting Col. Frank Burns offered to an attractive young nurse on the TV series M*A*S*H: "It's nice to be nice to the nice."
But chokhma does not mean "wisdom" in the Torah; it means "skill." As God designates the artisans who will construct the Tabernacle, God promises to augment their naturally skillful inclinations with greater skill. The well-meaning soul who does not have the ability to translate a vision into reality is left with frustrated intentions. It takes more than an idea to realize a goal.
And chokhma does not seem to mean mere expertise. In this same portion we read of the crafting of the golden calf. That object – believed by the Israelites who worshiped it to represent God – was likely a thing of uncommon beauty. Yet, it addressed only the lev ra of the people. The artist who serves only art, like the scholar who serves only scholarship, creates an idol, that is, a worship of the self.
Only God has a single-chambered heart, altruistic to perfection. Perhaps it is because only God exists without need, self-sustaining and therefore abundantly generous. (Even when sacrifices were offered for God, there was never a sense that they fulfilled some divine appetite.) It is from this single place of emanation, this whole-heartedness, that Torah emerges.
Our lev ra hungers for Torah, just as it hungers for food and physical pleasure. But if Torah is consumed like the perishable goods that feed our appetites, then it serves the self alone, and it becomes, God forbid, idolatrous. The only way truly to acquire the lessons of Torah that are the objects of the yearning of our selfishness is to return them to the world through our lev tov. The skilled and wise heart emulates the one heart of the One God. An altruistic nature creates a path to the lessons of Torah.
And that brings us back to the colloquial understanding of "a good heart." Not good deeds for their own sake, nor compassion for compassion's sake, nor even openness to God for the way it will benefit me, but all of those things to show honor to the Creator and creation; that's the Jewish meaning of "a good heart."
How do you develop lev tov? Accustom your hand to giving. Decide to keep your pockets empty of change. Whenever you find yourself with coins, deposit them in a tzedakah box or drop them into the paper cup held by a beggar on the street. You need those coins – for the parking meter, the coffee machine, the extra money on your Metro card. But they can do more good if they are dedicated to giving rather than taking. That same spirit will travel from your fingers, up your arm and into your heart.
*Please note: the portions of Vayak'hel and Pekudei are usually combined into one. This year, a leap year, they are separate. As a result, next week there will be no column. The columns will resume March 11 with emunat chakhamim, trusting in sages.