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The Innermost Heart

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To every spiritual destination, there are two paths: one direct that leads to its surface, and one indirect that leads to its heart.

The Halachic discussions filling the pages of the Talmud are interwoven with tales of Aggadah. These stories seem like light diversions between one serious debate and another, but they actually constitute an integral part of the Talmud—actual words of Torah that one must study and apply to life. Let us now examine one such story[1] and, using the tools granted by Chasidic thought, attempt to see what we can glean from it.


Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah relates that he was once walking along the road, seeking to reach a certain city. He came to a fork in the road but did not know which path led to the city. Rabbi Yehoshua saw a child sitting at the crossroads. He asked him, “By which path will I reach the city?” The child pointed to one path and said, “This path is short and long.” He then pointed to the other and said, “This path is long and short.”

Without hesitation, Rabbi Yehoshua headed for the first path, the one described as short and long. And indeed, he soon saw the city before him. Happy and encouraged, he quickened his steps, but was soon disappointed: The path led only to the outer gardens and orchards surrounding the city, with no way to enter the city itself.

Rabbi Yehoshua retraced his steps and rebuked the child: “You told me that this was the short path!” “I said that it was short and long,” the child corrected. Rabbi Yehoshua kissed the boy on his head and said to him, “Happy are you, Israel, for you are all great sages, from your old to your young!” End of story.

This seemingly innocent tale contains an important lesson about the right way of attaining any meaningful goal. Towards every desired objective, the story teaches us, one can advance in two ways.

One way is to try to reach it directly, to travel straight as the crow flies towards it without delays or preparations. However, the story argues that this path arrives only at the exterior of the destination, at the “gardens and orchards” that adorn it on the outside. In a way, the very directness of this approach testifies to a degree of immaturity on our part, basically ensuring only a superficial attainment of the destination (let us note that in the story, Rabbi Yehoshua’s choice of the short path stems from his impatience—he does not pay attention to the end of the boy’s description). This path seems short at first but ultimately proves to be long, for one must retrace it and start anew.

The second path does not lead directly to the destination. In fact, at first it seems not to lead to it at all, only to distance us from it. It demands that we turn away from the destination, and at least temporarily go in a different direction. But all this is part of a roundabout route this path takes, and at a certain stage, it begins to curve back towards the destination. When it finally reaches it, it leads right to the main gate and grants us entry. Walking this path metaphorically cleanses the walker from his impatience and grants him the maturity required to truly attain his goal. This path seems long but ultimately proves short.

Risky Roads

Elsewhere the sages say that “all paths are presumed dangerous.”[2] This statement is quite fitting for our story, which deals with two paths (it is a rule in the Talmud that since “the minimum of any plural is two,” any plural form refers specifically to two things). On both paths—including the second one that leads to the right destination—lurk dangers of which one must be wary.

The danger of the short and long path is that the person walking it will delude himself that the exterior of the destination, its “gardens and orchards,” is the true destination, and will settle for it. In the parable about Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah this does not happen, but in real life—what actually happens in journeys of spiritual growth—this is all too often the case. When this happens, we need courage and fortitude to admit that we were mistaken and must retrace our steps and start everything anew.

What about the danger of the long and short path? Although this path does arrive at its destination, it too involves a certain danger: the length and indirectness of the path will make the traveler forget his destination, and cause him to think that the long path is the destination. As we explained, the long path moves in a kind of semi-circle: it first distances itself from the city and then it curves back towards it. This means that at some point midway one must change direction. After growing accustomed to walking away from our destination, this is quite a difficult change to make. It requires reminding ourselves that our true destination is the city, and any roundabout route is but a means to reach it.

Rabbi, can you give us an example?

Sure. Let us now examine a central spiritual crossroads where we need to choose between a short-and-long path and a long-and-short path.

The Inner Heart

There is an ancient debate, assuming various forms and formulations throughout history, regarding what is superior—the head or the heart, intellect or the emotions? When discussing ancient Greece, for example, it is customary to distinguish between the more passion-driven “Dionysian” culture and the more intellect-driven “Apollonian” culture. In the modern era, it was the Enlightenment that argued for the superiority of the intellect, while Romanticism championed the superiority of the heart.

A simple Kabbalistic-Chassidic model may be able to help us resolve this debate once and for all.

The first half of this model lies in the Zohar’s statement “the brain governs the heart”[3] (מח שליט על הלב). On the surface, this statement sides unequivocally with the intellectuals, claiming the head is higher than the heart and not vice versa. In the Zohar’s language this principle seems universal and absolute, an unambiguous support for the position arguing for the intellect’s superiority.

Enter Chasidism, which develops the subject further. Chassidut made a distinction between two levels of emotion, called the “exterior of the heart” (chitzoniyut halev) and the “interior of the heart” (pnimiyut halev).

What do these terms mean? Well, the exterior of the heart refers to the conscious waves of feelings, emotions, and experiences that flow and ebb on the surface of our heart’s waters. The interior of the heart, on the other hand, refers to deeper emotional currents stirring beneath the surface, quiet and hidden from view. These feelings do not stem from a temporary mood and do not come and go but emerge from a deep and stable source within us.

Chasidic treatises explain that the Zohar’s statement about the intellect’s superiority over the heart applies only to the exterior of the heart. Regarding the heart’s interior, the relationship is reversed: the heart’s interior must govern the head.[4] The inner wisdom of the heart rises above the rigid patterns of the intellect and can grasp the objects of thought with greater depth, fullness, and vitality.

Here are the three levels of heart, intellect, and inner heart in relation to one another:

  • Interior of heart (פְּנִימִיּוּת הַלֵּב)
  • Intellect (מֹחַ)
  • Heart (לֵב)

Another way to phrase this is to say that, although emotions are lower than the intellect, the root of the emotions is higher than both. While the intellect observes the objects of its thought from afar, in a detached way, the emotions seek to experience it directly. For the heart’s exterior, this is not a true feeling of the object but a kind of “self-groping”—feeling the heart’s own emotional excitement regarding the object, rather than the object itself (as in the verse, “A fool has no delight in understanding, but only in the expression of his own heart”[5]). For the heart’s interior, however, which is not preoccupied with itself, this is indeed a true feeling of the object of emotion, and this is superior to the relatively external perspective of the intellect. Just as the head should govern the heart, so too the inner heart should govern the head. This softens the intellect and anchors it within a more balanced and holistic perception of reality.

The distinction between the exterior and interior dimensions of the heart sheds new light on the historical debates about the intellect versus the emotions. It shows that the superiority of the rationalist approach over the romantic one requires a significant qualification: Although the romantic approach is lower and more childish than the intellectual approach, it is, at its root, actually higher. The romantic’s aspiration for reaching beyond cold intellectual thinking and attaining a direct, unmediated connection with the essence of things, is a truly noble one. It can only be realized, however, after we accept the yoke of the critical intellect.

The Long Path to the Innermost Heart

The connection to the story of the two paths should already be apparent. From the three-tier model we have arrived at it emerges that the long and short path to the heart passes through the intellect. We cannot jump straight from the heart’s exterior emotions to the heart’s interior perception. Even if we try to use various methods of calming the emotional storms, such as breathing exercises, clearing the mind, increasing self-awareness and so on, without the intellect, we will only arrive at different levels of the heart’s exterior. This is the short path to the heart, and what it reaches are its “gardens and orchards,” which may be pleasant to behold, but are external and deceptive.

The only way to truly transition to the heart’s interior dimension is precisely to distance ourselves from the emotional plane. We need to stop seeking exciting experiences, and certainly not mystical experiences of various kinds, and to focus our minds on intellectual contemplation. Whether this involves thinking about Divine providence in our lives, decisions we must make, a topic we are studying, or the nature of creation, activating the intellect is a prerequisite to rising above the superficial reactions of the heart. This is the long and short path to the heart, which reaches its interiority.

This activity not only screens superficial or deceptive emotions on the way to revealing emotional depth. It also refines our motives in our search for the interior of the heart, cleansing us of seeking it for the sake of accumulating experience or aggrandizing our name. The Hebrew words for “gardens and orchards” (גנים ופרדסים) allude to the words for “prestige and prizes” (גנונים ופרסים). This intellectual activity turns us into an open vessel ready to contain the lights of the heart’s interior.

We can identify here the two dangers outlined above that characterize the two paths:

As we saw, the danger of the short path is the illusion that the gardens and orchards are the true goal. In our case, this means mistaking the heart’s exterior for its interior. This error confuses emotion with emotionalism, and erroneously thinks that any intense emotional experience must also be a profound one. In fact, the opposite is true: an inner emotion is like a “still, small voice” that can be heard only after the subsiding of the “wind”, “earthquake” and “fire” of the external emotion.[6]

What about the danger of the long path—forgetting the destination and remaining forever on the path? In our context, this is the view that rational intellect is the pinnacle of development, where we need to set up shop and resist temptations of emotionalism. This error stems from forgetting that the intellect is but a means, not an end, because, by definition, it is incapable of eliciting a true spiritual bond with its objects of thought.

The Innermost Mind

Now that we have come this far, it is worth knowing that even the heart’s interior is not the end of the journey. The love story between the head and the heart is even more complex than we thought.

How so? Well, just as Chasidut differentiates between the interior and exterior dimensions of the heart, so too it differentiates between the interior and exterior dimensions of the head, or intellect. And you guessed correctly: Just as the brain only governs the heart’s exterior while the heart’s interior is meant to govern the brain, it only governs the intellect’s exterior dimension, while the intellect’s interior dimension is meant to govern the heart’s interior.

If your head is now spinning from all these brains and hearts, please calmly stop its spinning, place it back on your shoulders (i.e., govern your exterior heart, which is really the one spinning your head on its finger and convincing it that it does not like complicated concepts…) and contemplate the following table, summarizing what we have learned:

  • Interior of intellect (פְּנִימִיּוּת הַמֹּחַ)
  • Interior of heart (פְּנִימִיּוּת הַלֵּב)
  • Intellect (מֹחַ)
  • Heart (לֵב)

At the lowest level is simply the heart, i.e., the exterior of the heart, the natural currents of emotion passing through us; above it is the intellect or brain, which has the power to supervise, critique and control the heart’s emotions; above that is the interior of the heart, i.e. the deeper emotions, which can be revealed only after the brain has been made to rule over the external ones; and above all is the level we have just proclaimed for the first time, the interior intellect.

What is the interior intellect, and what distinguishes it from the exterior one? Well, being the highest level here, it is also the deepest and most subtle of all, and the most difficult to describe. The best way to describe it is through the Chasidic interpretation of the Talmudic maxim, “Who is wise? He who sees what is born” (אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם? הָרוֹאֶה אֶת הַנּוֹלָד).[7] According to Chasidut, the wise one is he who “sees” with his mind’s eye how each and every thing is “born,” i.e., comes into being, anew at every moment. Such a person does not experience anything as having an independent existence, as “simply being there,” but as having a relation to Godliness. This is the inner intellect, which exists within each of us.

The interior heart feels the object of emotion truly, but the interior intellect goes one step further, and feels the Godliness within. From this, the interior intellect, at its highest levels, can reach the literal “seeing of what is born,” beginning with a general sense of where things will lead, and culminating in the attainment of actual prophecy.

The idea that the interior intellect should govern the interior heart means that just as on the lower and more external levels the heart needs to be governed by an intellect, so too the inner and deeper emotions need to be guided by a conscious, intellectual search for the Divine spark in everything. There needs to be some method to the madness, some deep inner rationale serving as a guideline for the heart’s interior dimension. This is the role of the interior intellect.

Adding the level of the interior intellect brings us full circle (kind of like the longer-shorter path) and, after somewhat dissing the rationalist approach, we can restore its dignity, as we did earlier with regard to the Romantics. Rationalism too, it turns out, although it errs in granting the intellect such an exalted status, has a lofty root—indeed, loftier even than that of Romanticism. However, to elevate it to its root one must first pass through the heart’s interior—i.e. to first elevate Romanticism to its root found in the intellect’s interior dimension.

The interior heart, it turns out, is not only the destination of the long and short path, but is itself a long and short path to a more advanced destination—the interior intellect. In our story, if the interior heart is the city to which Rabbi Yehoshua was going, the interior intellect would be a special tzaddik who lives in that city, and to whom Rabbi Yehoshua was heading to learn inner wisdom from (if he had the interior intellect to begin with, he would have foreseen the outcome of the short path and chosen the long one). We thus learn that the concept of paths and destinations here is relative: every destination is also a path to a higher destination.

May we all advance from strength to strength on the infinite path toward the interior dimensions of our hearts and minds, of our emotions and our intelligence and to our Father in Heaven who bestows them upon us.

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[1]. Eiruvin 53b.

[2]. Kohelet Rabbah 3:3.

[3]. Zohar 3:224a.

[4]. Likkutei Torah, Noach 4.

[5] Proverbs 18:2.

[6]. See 1 Kings 19:12.

[7]. Tamid 32a.

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