You are likely familiar with the childhood phenomenon known as parallel play.
It’s simple really. When toddlers play together, they often sit beside one another, share toys, take interest in the same things, but rather than relate to each other, they relate to a common activity which they do in parallel.
I recently heard a rabbi describe grown-ups who engage in parallel play: “Two partners share a home, maybe some kids, a couple of cars, but they don’t ever really connect with one another anymore.”
A recent New Yorker cartoon depicts this well. A couple sits together at the breakfast table. Says one to the other, “Sometimes, I wonder what it’d be like if you were here.”
All too often, we fall prey to the patterns that we create in our lives. We are absent, not really present. We stop really listening, really hearing one another. We move in parallel lines without ever the chance of meeting. We become preprogrammed, prepared with our ready response, before we can even appreciate that which we are being asked to consider.
Yet, Jewish tradition reminds us how important it is not to act or respond in this preprogrammed way.
In this week’s Torah portion, Eikev, we are instructed, “Umaltem et orlat levavchem ve’orpechem lo takshu od,” literally, “Circumcise the foreskin of your heart and stiffen your necks no more.” (Deuteronomy 10:16)
The foreskin of the heart, orlat ha-lev, represents our stubbornness, our inflexibility, our quickness to react. It is our patterned behaviors that make us feel heavy and that weigh us down. Orlat ha-lev is the shell of habit that encases us and hardens us to the mystery of the world in us and around us.
And the foreskin of our heart blocks us from becoming our best selves. It blocks us from creating and sustaining the relationships that we desire. It blocks us from God.
But, we can choose to remove the foreskin of our hearts, the barriers we have placed in our lives.
And if we begin to do this, peeling back even one layer at a time of preprogrammed responses, of unquestioned confidence in our own perspective, of our own lack of wonder, we will undoubtedly experience the fruits of this seemingly simple, but incredibly difficult labor.
Orlah in its agricultural sense refers to the first three years of the fruit tree’s produce that were not consumed. These fruits, instead, were removed from the tree in order that ultimately the tree could produce better fruit in the future.
It is hard to break away from the patterns and habits in our lives, from the way we have always done things. But in doing so, we create space for new experiences, new possibilities and a more meaningful and sweeter New Year.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)