Take heart: the body and soul connection

Dear Rabbi Fried,
In reciting “the Shema,” in the first paragraph it says you should not be swayed “after your heart.” I have always wondered why there and other places in the Torah that I have read it refers to “thoughts of the heart,” when we know that thoughts are in the brain?
Zachary B.
Dear Zachary, For years I was perplexed by this question and fascinated that in Western civilization and earlier secular literature, emotions and thoughts are also attributed to the heart, perhaps following the Torah’s lead.
An insight on this is that the heart, besides its physical role of pumping blood throughout the body, in Judaism is given a unique role as we shall attempt to explain.
A human is not a soul — or just a body — but the union of the two. At what point in the human body do these two opposites — body and soul — meet?
The deeper sources in Torah explain that the principal seat of the soul is said to be in the brain, while the main bodily organ representing physicality is the liver. The heart is the chamber where the body and soul meet and join, fusing together to make a human being. Just as the heart pumps the oxygen-enriched blood throughout the body, providing nourishment for its cells, the heart “pumps” the connection of the soul throughout the physical body.
This idea helps explain a profound message in the tefillin. One box, comprised of four smaller boxes, is worn on the head corresponding to the four lobes of the brain. This sanctifies our thoughts. The other box, worn on the upper arm, infuses holiness into our physical actions. The latter is supposed to be tipped toward the heart, as the heart is the place where the physical and the spiritual are combined.
Not to “sway after your heart” means not to allow the physicality of the body to overcome the soul, as it potentially could, because the two are connected at the heart.
Later the Shema says to “put these words (of Torah) upon your heart”; with thoughts of Torah one’s entire being becomes a miniature tabernacle of holiness — body and soul working in unison.
This enables us to take a new look at the common statement that it’s enough to be “Jewish in the heart.” (I call that a “Jewish heart condition”!) To truly be “Jewish in the heart” one needs to combine one’s thoughts and actions to serve God; the heart combines the two. Otherwise, to just think Jewish thoughts without actions would be only “Jewish in the brain” — missing the heart!
We should strive to be wholesome, complete Jews, meshing every area of our existence into our Jewish mission, with complete hearts.

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